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Get a Grip on Toxic Chemicals August 31, 2010

Posted by Nancy Hepp in Letters.
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Reps. Doyle and Murphy are well positioned to help protect us

Maureen Swanson
CHE Partner and Director of the Healthy Children Project for the Learning Disabilities Association of America

This letter was originally published in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. It’s republished here with the author’s permission.

Imagine all the chemicals used in televisions, computers, upholstery, car seats, building materials, even children’s pajamas. Imagine that some of these chemicals migrate from products into dust and dirt, and build up in our bodies. They are found in the cord blood of newborns and in breast milk. Imagine that these chemicals are similar in structure to the notorious PCBs – carcinogens banned from use in the late 1970s.

Now wouldn’t you also imagine that these chemicals were tested and found to be safe to human health before they were allowed into our products and homes?

Unfortunately, that is not the case.

Polybrominated diphyenyl ethers are flame retardant chemicals that persist in the environment and build up in the food chain and in people. Laboratory studies link exposure to PBDEs with lowered IQ and attention problems. This summer, a study of pregnant women found that those with higher levels of PBDEs had reduced levels of thyroid hormone, which is essential to a baby’s brain development.

But despite growing scientific evidence linking toxic chemical exposures to serious disease and disability, our government does not require that PBDEs – or any of the other 80,000 chemicals on the market – be tested for effects on human health.

That could be about to change, and two Pittsburgh members of Congress are in key positions to help make it happen.

(more…)

The Cost of Toxic Exposures October 14, 2009

Posted by Nancy Hepp in Newsletter introductions.
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Elise Miller, MEd
Director

As the health care reform debate continues, little discussion has focused on the  significant cost savings that could be achieved through preventing exposures to toxic chemicals—chemicals that are shown to contribute to numerous health endpoints, including obesity, diabetes, learning and developmental disabilities, Parkinson’s, reproductive health problems, breast cancer, asthma and heart disease. When tobacco use was significantly curtailed, for example, the number of cases of lung cancer and others associated diseases fell dramatically, saving billions of dollars. The downside is that it took decades to persuade industry and government that the scientific data linking smoking and lung cancer was strong enough to warrant such strict regulation—and in the meanwhile, many, many more people became ill.

In this context, we have to ask how much evidence is enough before we switch to safer alternatives and implement regulations that allow only chemicals that have been thoroughly tested for human safety on the market? Do we have to wait years or even decades more, while people become increasingly sick, to reduce toxic exposures? What kind of health care savings might we have if we took preventive action now?

At a meeting of 150 scientists and physicians a couple weeks ago, Dr. Phil Landrigan, from Mount Sinai School of Medicine, stated that chronic childhood diseases linked to exposure to toxic chemicals in the environment have been surging upward, costing the US almost $55 billion a year. Other researchers in children’s environmental health say this number is, in fact, much higher. When you then add in the environmentally attributable fraction of health care costs related to a host of other chronic diseases and disabilities in adults, even conservative estimates suggest that our society could save almost $200 billion a year. 

Currently, the proposed health care reform bill in Congress suggests that the expansion of coverage would cost $829 billion over 10 years. Let’s say we could reduce environmental contributors to chronic disease and save $200 billion a year for 10 years. That would mean a total savings $2 trillion, thus making the current acrimonious debate regarding expanded coverage seem hardly worth it. In other words, if we invested in primary prevention—even in this relatively narrow arena of minimizing hazardous environmental exposures without addressing other pressing concerns such as socioeconomic status, access to health care, nutrition, etc., then full health-care coverage would fiscally achievable without dire predictions of bankrupting future generations.

Fortunately, EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson just announced some groundbreaking principles for establishing a system for testing chemicals that would be more protective of human health than current regulations are. She called on Congress to overhaul the woefully inadequate Toxic Substances Control Act, passed in 1976, that was supposed to regulate chemical manufacturing and use. In the past 30-plus years, only five chemicals out of the 80,000 now on the market were determined to put people at “unreasonable risk” under TSCA. Even asbestos, a substance well-studied and known to significantly impact human health, ultimately could not be banned given TSCA’s limited scope. By contrast, Jackson prescribed a new regulatory structure that would, among other features, promote green chemistry and safer alternatives and ensure manufacturers provide EPA with the necessary information to conclude that new and existing chemicals do not endanger public health or the environment (see the full EPA press release).

Now the question is whether Congressional leaders, embroiled in the politics of health care reform, can connect the dots and see that regulating chemicals to protect human health also means substantially reducing health care costs while increasing the capacity of the US to provide health care coverage to all its citizens. Surely that would be a  ‘win-win.’

CHE’s Letter to President-Elect Obama November 14, 2008

Posted by Nancy Hepp in Letters.
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Dear President-Elect Obama:

We write as Partners in the Collaborative on Health and the Environment, a national and international partnership dedicated to protecting the health of our families and communities. Our 3000 Partners include patient group representatives, health professionals, scientists, government officials, environmental health advocates, and citizens from over 48 states and 45 countries.

We provide a respected nonpartisan forum where informed, thoughtful, civil dialogue on health and the environment takes place. We share your dedication to civility and to listening to each other. By our founding mandate, we are prohibited from speaking for all CHE Partners. But we are permitted to convey the shared understanding that has emerged for many of us from six years of intensive dialogue on the implications of the revolution in environmental health sciences for safeguarding human health.

Mr. President, there has been a revolution in environmental health sciences over the past decade. New technologies, new scientific research, and new paradigms of human health and disease have revolutionized our understanding of human health. Indisputably, we face an epidemic of chronic diseases and disorders. Cancer, heart disease, diabetes, metabolic syndrome, obesity, asthma, allergies, learning and developmental disabilities, infertility, neurodegenerative diseases, autoimmune diseases, and many other serious diseases and disorders are epidemic in our time.

There are three core insights from the revolution in environmental health sciences. First, most of these diseases are multifactorial in origin. Second, many begin during fetal and early childhood development. And third, most include among their causes exposures to chemical contaminants, particularly those that persist and bioaccumulate. These contaminants interact with genetic inheritance, gene expression, nutrition, stress, socioeconomic status, and much, much more. We call this the complexity model, or ecological model, of human health. You can call it a multifactorial model just as well. Whatever we call it, few scientists disagree with its main outlines.

The implications of these three core insights from the environmental health science revolution are profound. They bear directly on your administration’s plans for health care reform.

Mr. President, you know our health care system is broken. You want to fix it. You have spoken eloquently of the need to prevent disease. The question we face is HOW to prevent the diseases that are bankrupting our health care system and imposing enormous costs on our economy — to say nothing of their cost in human suffering.

Mr. President, the simple truth is that REAL health promotion and disease prevention requires a national commitment to making our inner and outer environments less toxic and stressful — and richer in nutrients and resilience factors. That is what the multifactorial or ecological model of human health ineluctably implies. What this means is that most of the major policy issues you face — the economy, climate change, health care reform, school reform, food and agriculture and much more — are ultimately your real health promotion and disease prevention policies.

You know that the global financial crisis is unquestionably the single greatest immediate stressor on human health. But to what degree do you recognize how important it is that your policies reduce income disparities, which are the single strongest predictor of disparities in health outcomes? If you want to reduce health care costs, the single most powerful lever to do that is to reduce income disparities and enhance buffers against the stresses of income disparities. The MacArthur Network on Socioeconomic Status and Health is a respected source on this point.

Likewise, you know that climate change is a potentially overwhelming stressor on human health. So your green energy program is not only an economic, national security and environmental priority, as you have said. It is also one of your most important health programs. But to what degree do you recognize that green energy must be accompanied by a commitment to green chemistry and green materials?

Mr. President, it is vital to understand that your chemical management policy will have a profound impact on our health. This is the area in which CHE Partners have the greatest expertise. Chemical contaminants are major contributors to many of the chronic disease epidemics we face. Green energy is necessary but not sufficient to sustaining our health. Green energy, green chemistry, and green materials are all vital components of a health policy that recognizes the implications of the environmental health science revolution and the ecological or multifactorial model of human health.

Beyond green energy, green chemistry and green materials, many of us also share a view that your administration needs to be aware of the health threats of new and emerging technologies. There is increasing concern about the health effects of disrupted electromagnetic fields, biotechnologies and nanotechnologies. Again and again, we have failed to test new technologies for health and safety adequately before loosing them on our citizens and the world.

We cannot expect you to address all of these questions at once, Mr. President. So let us leave you with this summary. Universal health care will fail — it will be far too expensive to sustain — if it is not accompanied by a commitment to real health promotion and disease prevention. The green economy you are committed to creating can only be truly green if it includes green energy, green chemistry, and green materials. That is the path to a just and sustainable country and a just and sustainable world.

Thank you for listening, Mr. President. We wish you well,

Michael Lerner, PhD
Founding CHE Partner

Steve Heilig, MPH
Director of Public Health and Education, San Francisco Medical Society

Génon K. Jensen, MA
Executive Director, Health & Environment Alliance

Philip R. Lee, MD
Chairman, CHE
Professor and Chancellor Emeritus, University of California, San Francisco
Professor of Medicine Emeritus, Stanford University
Former United States Assistant Secretary of Health and Human Services

Elise Miller, MEd
Executive Director, Institute for Children’s Environmental Health

Ted Schettler, MD, MPH
Science Director, Science and Environmental Health Network

Lisette van Vliet, PhD
Toxics Policy Advisor, Health & Environment Alliance

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