Body Burden: The Pollution in Newborns

The Pollution in Newborns

July 14, 2005

Body Burden: The Pollution in Newborns: Recommendations

U.S. industries manufacture and import approximately 75,000 chemicals, 3,000 of them at over a million pounds per year. Studies show that hundreds of industrial chemicals circulate in the blood of a baby in the womb, interacting in ways that are not fully understood. Many more pollutants are likely present in the womb, but test methods have yet to be developed that would allow health officials to comprehensively assess prenatal exposure to chemicals, or to ensure that these exposures are safe. From a regulatory perspective, fetal exposure to industrial chemicals is quite literally out of control.

The reason: the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), the nation's notoriously weak chemical safety law. TSCA deprives the EPA of the most basic regulatory tools. The vast majority of chemicals in use today do not have anywhere near sufficient data needed to assess their safety, particularly their safety for the unborn baby or young child. Under TSCA, however, the EPA cannot require this data as a condition of continued chemical use. Instead, the EPA must negotiate with industry or complete a formal "test rule" for every study that it needs, for every chemical on the market. Consequently, very few high quality toxicity tests are conducted.

When industry submits results of voluntary testing to the agency, huge portions, including key health and safety findings, are routinely redacted as confidential business information, meaning that even state regulatory agencies are not allowed to review them. If risks are identified and action is contemplated, minimizing "unreasonable" costs to industry is the TSCA mandate, no matter how serious the risks and no matter the population that bears them — even unborn babies. And if there is any scientific uncertainty, as there often is, TSCA prohibits precautionary action and requires certainty of harm before actions can be taken to protect the public health. TSCA has not been improved for nearly 30 years — longer than any other major environmental or public health statute.

This study and a strong body of supporting science suggest that fetal exposure to industrial chemicals is contributing to adverse health effects in the human population. This is cause for concern.

But experience also shows us that it is never too late to take action. Blood levels of PCBs and pesticides like DDT are lower today than 30 years ago when they were banned. Since these watershed actions in the 1970s, however, few industrial chemicals have been regulated to any significant degree. The various reasons for this stagnation — the need for data on chemical toxicity and exposure, lack of ambition at the EPA, and chemical industry intransigence — all come back to one central cause: the absence of a strong federal chemical safety law that provides the EPA with unambiguous statutory authority to take the actions needed to ensure that chemicals are safe.

Because TSCA does not mandate safety studies and makes it difficult for EPA to demand them, a number of voluntary initiatives to gather more information about chemicals have been attempted, most notably the high production volume (HPV) chemical screening program. These efforts, however, have been largely ineffective at reducing exposure and are no substitute for a clear statutory requirement to protect children from the toxic effects of chemical exposure.

Federal law must be reformed to ensure that children are protected from chemical exposures, and that to the maximum extent possible exposure to industrial chemicals before birth be eliminated entirely. The nation's pesticide law was amended nearly a decade ago to require explicit protection of infants and children from pesticides. Actions taken under the 1996 Food Quality Protection Act (FQPA) have reduced or eliminated children's exposures to a number of highly hazardous pesticides, with no discernable adverse impact on the availability or price of a wholesome food supply, and without adverse impact on the agricultural or pesticide industry. We recommend a similar standard be applied to commercial chemicals.

This would mean transforming TSCA into a true public health and environmental law, with the following core provisions. A new TSCA would:

  • Require chemical manufacturers to demonstrate affirmatively that the chemicals they sell are safe for the entire population exposed, including children in the womb. In the absence of information on the risks of pre-natal exposure, chemicals must be assumed to present greater risk to the developing baby in utero, and extra protections must be required at least as strict as the 10 fold children's safety factor in FQPA.
  • Require that the safety of closely related chemicals, such as the perfluorochemicals used to make Teflon and other stain-resistant and water repellant products, be assessed as a group. The presumption would be that these chemicals have additive toxicity unless manufacturers clearly prove otherwise.
  • Grant the EPA clear and unencumbered authority to demand all studies needed to make a finding of safety and to enforce clear deadlines for study completion.
  • Remove from the market chemicals for which tests demonstrating safety are not conducted.
  • Eliminate confidential business protection for all health, safety, and environmental information.
  • Require that material safety data sheets provided to workers contain the results of studies conducted under these provisions.
  • Provide strong incentives for green, safer chemicals in consumer products and industrial processes.

Related Materials

EWG Letter to Chemical Lobby (PDF)

Chemical Lobby Response #1 (PDF)

Stmt from US Rep. Slaughter (PDF)

Stmt from Minority Leader Pelosi (PDF)