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.

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Common Sense Steps

Frieda Slavin

Science is rarely certain about anything, and certainly not about most links between environmental exposures and health effects in people. Nonetheless, the evidence showing links to health grows ever stronger as research progresses and becomes ever-more sophisticated:

  • Scientists have generated compelling laboratory evidence revealing adverse effects in animals at low levels of exposure, affecting animal endpoints that are relevant to cancer, birth defects, reproductive effects, immune system dysfunctions, respiratory problems, learning and behavior problems, etc.
  • They have demonstrated that many of the underlying mechanisms causing those effects in animals are similar, if not identical, to human mechanisms.
  • They have documented human exposures to chemicals at levels that produce harm of many types in animals.
  • And they have identified trends in human health and disability that can be predicted on the basis of the above.

But establishing scientific certainty of harm to people is elusive at best and in many cases likely to be impossible before countless people would be affected adversely. After all, epidemiology can only establish harm after an epidemic has occurred. Purposefully carrying out controlled experiments on people is considered, appropriately, unethical. And thus we are left with the plethora of uncontrolled, largely unmonitored experiments currently underway because of ubiquitous exposure.

Given these limitations, and given that our current regulatory system is unlikely to strengthen exposure standards absent much firmer proof, what is a person, or a parent, or a family, to do?

Much good, practical advice is available on the web and in print. Some of the best places to turn for practical advice are listed below. In addition to pointing toward these resources, on this page we will highlight a few old themes (“constants”) and then focus on new issues that are emerging from recent research and analysis.

One general point: As you make choices about products to buy, things to do, food to eat, places to go, bear in mind that government standards for regulating environmental threats to health are at best a bare minimum and at worst completely inadequate and health threatening. So what you choose to do should always at least live up to those standards.

This is because government regulations represent a compromise negotiated between advocates for public health and parties, usually companies or trade associations, with an economic interest in protecting their access to the market. The playing field in which the negotiation takes place is strongly biased in favor of the vested interests, who have succeeded over several decades of lobbying to put in place evidentiary standards for proof of harm that make it very difficult to prevent marketing of new products, or removal of old, even in the face of compelling evidence of plausible harm. Decades of experience reinforce that conclusion.

Constants:

  • Smoking harms adults, children and the developing fetus. It’s not just the irritation of the smoke itself, it’s also compounds added to the tobacco, the paper and the filter that make their way into your lungs and your bloodstream. Rules #1-3: don’t smoke; don’t inflict second-hand smoke on someone else; and don’t allow smokers to share their second-hand smoke with you or your family, especially your young children.
  • The fetus is remarkably sensitive to alcohol. Avoid alcoholic beverages during pregnancy. Otherwise impacts can last a lifetime.
  • Ozone damages developing lungs. While studies have shown for some time that ozone can trigger asthmatic attacks, the latest research even implicates ozone in the actual causation of asthma itself. When ozone levels rise and local governments issue air pollution warnings, pay attention. Some local newspapers carry regular ozone notices. They are worth reading and heeding.
  • Pollutants in some fish can damage the fetus, undermining development of disease resistance and cognitive development. Heed fish advisories posted by public health agencies.
    New York State Dept of Health: Health Advisories on Chemicals in Fish
  • Some plastics leach biologically-active materials into food with which they come into contact, particularly when heated. If you must use plastic, at least don’t microwave food in it.

 


Web and print resources

The Children’s Health Environmental Coalition’s HealtheHouse: an interactive resource for parents to learn about simple and effective steps they can take to protect their baby from environmental harm within the home.

The GreenGuide’s product reports: “a one-stop, reliable and easy-to-use shoppers’ guide so that you can make wiser, more conscientious shopping decisions.” Reports available include “flea control,” “insect repellant” and “household cleaning supplies.”

Raising Healthy Children in A Toxic World, a book by Philip Landrigan, Herbert Needleman and Mary Landrigan.

The Resource Guide on Children’s Environmental Health, by the Children’s Environmental Health Network.

Cleaning for Health: Products and Practices for a Safer Indoor Environment, an excellent and thorough review of cleaning products by Inform, Inc.

The Healthy School Network: ways to reduce exposures at school.

The Healthy Building Network: steps to reduce exposures via better selection of building materials and hospital equipment.

A number of organizations offer solid information about ways to reduce pesticide use. Among them: