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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To Clean or Not?

Nancy Snow, MS
Research and Communications Specialist

Headlines in the last 24 hours or so have looked too good to be true: Cancer risk in a clean house and Houseproud women ‘more at risk from breast cancer.’ Can I really stop cleaning without guilt?

Sadly, the spin on a new study is indeed too good to be true. The study was published yesterday in the journal Environmental Health: “Self-reported chemicals exposure, beliefs about disease causation, and risk of breast cancer in the Cape Cod Breast Cancer and Environment Study: A case-control study,” with data that “suggest that cleaning product use contributes to increased breast cancer risk.” The increased risk was up to two-fold in the highest compared with lowest quartile of self-reported combined cleaning product use and combined air freshener use.

The five categories of cleaning products that women in the study were asked about using — solid and spray air fresheners, surface cleaners, oven cleaners, and mold/mildew products — typically contain chemicals known to have adverse health effects: chlorine, ammonia, several different solvents, phthalates, parabens, alcohol, fragrances, disinfectants, lye and more.

But if you stop cleaning, other chemical bad actors lurk in house dust: PBDEs from virtually any electric appliance that has plastic components; lead from pre-1978 house paint; pesticide and oil residues brought into houses on shoes; and vinyl from blinds, plumbing, furniture, shower curtains and many other things plastic. Then there are unfriendly pathogens that may be brought into your house on food, pets or visitors; toxic mold that’s always floating about the air waiting for a moist place to land and grow; and much bigger organisms that will be attracted to unclean areas: ants, cockroaches, and even rats.

The takeaway here is not to stop cleaning, it’s to stop cleaning with toxic chemicals. CHE provides a searchable database of books, websites, databases, consumer guides and more with everything from the science behind chemicals’ effects on health to recipes for nontoxic cleaning products.

As for the solid and spray air fresheners: they’re not needed at all. If your house smells, remove the source of the odor, whether animal waste, garbage, smoke residue, mold, mildew or old gym clothes. Open a window for at least part of every day if you can, and breathe easier both during and after cleaning your house.

President’s Cancer Panel Report on Environmental Contributors to Cancer

Elise Miller, MEd
Director

Rarely has anyone told me that they felt teary-eyed with joy when reading a newly published government report. But at least three prominent environmental health leaders I know said they felt just that when reviewing the President’s Cancer Panel report, Reducing Environmental Cancer Risk: What We Can Do Now, released last week. The report provides a multi-layered analysis of over 450 scientific studies linking chemical exposures to various forms of cancer and suggests action steps we can take on both personal and policy levels. Its publication garnered immediate press attention, with articles in the Washington Post, the New York Times, USA Today, and other media sources. Some cancer experts, including those representing the American Cancer Society who provided testimony to the PCP along with a number of respected academics and industry leaders, however, have expressed concern that the report overstates certain findings. Those discussions will no doubt continue to take place.

What should not be lost in any debate on these issues, however, is the report’s unequivocal recommendation that chemical exposures need to be considered along with lifestyle choices, genetics and other factors that may contribute to cancer—otherwise, we will only continue to see unacceptably high rates of childhood leukemia, breast cancer, prostate cancer, brain tumors and many other cancers that can shatter the lives of so many families and communities and add huge costs to the health care system. In short, this report brings to the forefront why the potential health impact of certain chemicals—chemicals that are now ubiquitous in the everyday products we use, in our food and water, and even in our own bodies—need to be an integral part of any primary prevention research and public health initiative on cancer.

Other notable aspects of this report include the emphasis on taking precautionary action in the face of potential threats to public health, the promotion of new worker safety standards, and the inclusion of military activities. In addition, it makes a persuasive economic case for why we need to develop alternatives and prioritize green chemistry as well as a human rights case for focusing not just on reducing the number of deaths but on improving the quality of life, particularly for those in disproportionately impacted communities. Finally, this report is unusually compelling and comprehensive because it offers clear steps we can take on multiple levels to reduce the incidence of cancer. In short, it calls for nothing less than a national cancer prevention strategy—inclusive of all potential contributing factors—that is wholly embraced by our communities and fully supported by the federal government, the health sector, and industry.

To learn more about this seminal report and its implications, please join us for our CHE partnership call on Tuesday May 18th.

CHE’s Letter to President-Elect Obama

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