Get a Grip on Toxic Chemicals

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.

U.S. Reps. Mike Doyle, D-Forest Hills, and Tim Murphy, R-Upper St. Clair, sit on the House Energy and Commerce Committee that is considering the newly introduced Toxic Chemicals Safety Act of 2010. The bill would require that all chemicals, new and existing, are shown to be safe before entering or remaining on the market, and it would set a safety standard for chemicals that is especially protective of fetal and children’s health.

Championing this legislation ought to be a natural fit for these two congressmen, since they both have a keen and longstanding interest in protecting and nurturing healthy development in children.

Mr. Murphy was a child psychologist for decades before running for office. During his medical career he helped thousands of children with learning and behavior problems to lead fuller lives. Some of the children he treated were preterm babies, who are at higher risk of learning and developmental difficulties. Certain toxic chemicals are also implicated in the increasing incidence of preterm births.

Mr. Doyle is a strong proponent of addressing the needs of children with autism and their families. As the co-chair of the House Caucus on Autism, Mr. Doyle has introduced and helped to pass legislation to ensure better insurance, services and research for children on the autism spectrum and their families.

Children are particularly vulnerable to harm from toxic chemicals. From conception through early childhood, their brains and bodies are rapidly developing. During this period, minuscule amounts of toxic chemicals can cause irreparable harm to the fetal or infant brain – at levels much lower than those affecting an adult. Recent studies also show that exposure to certain chemicals in the womb can wreak havoc with the body’s hormonal system and cellular development, potentially setting the stage for the later onset of cancer or reproductive problems.

Children’s immune systems are still developing too, meaning that their bodies are less able to rid themselves of toxins and less able to reduce the toxicity of pollutants than adults’ bodies. New studies show that developing immune and neurological systems seem to interact with toxic chemicals in children with autism in ways that scientists are only beginning to understand.

Not only are children at greater risk of harm, they also are often more highly exposed to toxic chemicals. Per pound of body weight, children eat more food, drink more fluids and breathe more air than adults. Because they spend more time on the ground and put objects and hands into their mouths, they are often more exposed to chemicals that migrate from products into dust and dirt.

In addition to setting a safety standard that will protect vulnerable groups like pregnant women, developing fetuses and children, the Toxic Chemicals Safety Act would require the Environmental Protection Agency to swiftly identify and phase out the most dangerous chemicals –those that persist in the environment and build up in the food chain and in people. In addition to PBDEs, these include well-known toxic metals such as lead and cadmium. The legislation also would provide incentives for chemical manufacturers to develop safer alternatives. As an emerging center of green chemistry and technology, Pittsburgh is well situated to gain economically from this provision of the bill.

Reps. Doyle and Murphy have an enormous opportunity to help overhaul the way the federal government protects the public from toxic chemicals. By co-sponsoring this bill, they would be acting to ensure that children now and for generations to come will live, learn and play in healthy environments that enable them to reach their full potential.

Now imagine that.

One thought on “Get a Grip on Toxic Chemicals

  1. Ms. Swanson has written an important article that I hope is widely read…and acted upon. Her comment about children being particularly vulnerable to harm from toxic chemicals should be on the wall of the homes of pregnant women. The neuroscientist, Dr. Agin elaborates the risk in his blog of December 1, 2009 in the Huffington Post: “Pregnancy, Toxic Environments, and Fetal Vulnerability.”
    Every concerned parent should write to their U.S. representative to support the Toxic Chemicals Safety Act of 2010 bill. It is desperately needed!

    Each person can also take simple steps to diminish the risk to their health from toxic chemicals in the environment. See the author’s blog {}.

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