Congress: Protect Public Health, Not Toxic Chemicals
Americans have long been unwitting subjects in an uncontrolled experiment.
For decades, U.S. manufacturers—with the federal government's blessing—have been producing tens of thousands of untested, potentially toxic chemicals, many of which wind up in our bodies. These substances include suspected neurotoxins, carcinogens and endocrine disruptors, and thousands of other chemicals for which there is little or no information.
Photo courtesy of Shutterstock
Why? When Congress passed the landmark Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) nearly 40 years ago, the law considered chemicals already on the market to be safe. So while it required the government to review new chemicals for their toxicity, it exempted nearly 62,000 pre-existing, commercially available ones. They included such nasty substances as bisphenol A (BPA), ethyl benzene and toluene, and others that health officials still know very little about, including the relatively obscure 4-methylcyclohexane methanol (MCHM). That's the chemical that leaked into the Elk River in West Virginia earlier this year, contaminating the water supply of 300,000 area residents.
Only about 200 of the chemicals that were on the market before TSCA was enacted in 1977 have been tested for safety. Since then, the number of chemicals in the marketplace has jumped to more than 80,000, and TSCA's requirements for those new chemicals have hardly been stringent. Manufacturers are supposed to supply the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) with information about production volume, intended uses and toxicity 90 days before they begin commercial-scale production. But 85 percent of the manufacturers' notifications have contained no health data, according to the EPA's own figures.
The result of this experiment?
On March 12, Dr. Philip Landrigan, a renowned pediatrician and epidemiologist, addressed this question as it pertains to children in testimony before the House Subcommittee on the Environment and the Economy. Landrigan is the dean for global health at the Mount Sinai Hospital medical school in Manhattan and co-author of a recent study on the "silent pandemic" of toxins damaging the brains of unborn children.
"Rates of a whole series of chronic diseases are on the rise in American children," Landrigan said. "Asthma has tripled. Childhood cancer incidence has gone up by 40 percent over the past 40 years. Autism now affects one child in 88. Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder affects about one child in seven, according to data from the CDC [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention]. These chronic diseases of children are highly prevalent in today's world. They are on the increase...."
And many have been linked to toxic chemicals.
"There is a strong body of scientific evidence that toxic chemicals have contributed to diseases in children," Landrigan continued. "Going back 100 years ago, lead was shown to cause mental deficiency, learning problems and loss of IQ. Seventy-five years ago, methylmercury. More recently, clinical and epidemiologic studies have linked organophosphate pesticides, arsenic, manganese, brominated flame retardants, phthalates and bisphenol A to learning disabilities, loss of IQ, and problems of behavior in children."
Weakening TSCA Under the Guise of Reform
While the recent MCHM spill in West Virginia heightened public awareness about the threat posed by unregulated chemicals, Washington has been wrestling with updating TSCA for a number of years. Lisa Jackson, the EPA administrator during the first Obama Administration, stepped into the fray in 2012, proposing a half-dozen common-sense principles to strengthen public health protections. She pointed out that it is imperative that chemical manufacturers provide the EPA the data it needs to make safety evaluations that take into account the most vulnerable Americans, especially children. The EPA should review the most dangerous existing and new chemicals first, she said, and the new law should encourage manufacturers to produce safer, more sustainable chemicals and products. Finally, she stressed that Congress must shift the burden of proof to industry. Right now, the EPA has to prove a chemical is unsafe to restrict its use or take it off the market. Manufacturers, she said, should have to prove their chemicals are safe.
Public health, labor and environmental groups have been calling for TCSA reform with the same principles in mind for quite some time. Their efforts, however, have been frustrated by the chemical industry, which wields considerable power on Capitol Hill. What's different now is chemical manufacturers and other, related industries are now taking a new tack to undermine efforts to strengthen the law. They are encouraging Congress to pass legislation that appears to protect public health, but in fact would not.
Last May, Sen. Lautenberg (D-NJ) and Sen. Vitter (R-LA) introduced the Chemical Safety Improvement Act. "Improvement" sounds like an improvement, right? As drafted, however, the bill would weaken TSCA. For example, if TSCA has one saving grace, it permits states to establish their own safeguards to protect their residents from toxic chemicals. Some states, notably California, are way ahead of the federal government. The bill would largely preempt stricter state protections.
Lautenberg died shortly after introducing the bill, and after a July hearing, the bill stalled. Meanwhile, just a few weeks ago, the House took up the issue. On Feb. 27, Rep. Shimkus (R-IL) introduced a draft of what he is calling the Chemicals in Commerce Act.
He should have called it the More Toxic Chemicals in Commerce Act.
"Throughout the draft, the bill gives greater weight to reducing the burdens on industry than to protecting the public and the environment," Andrew Rosenberg, director of the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists, explained in a March 5 letter to House members. "When chemical interests may face additional requirements, the bill gives them so many ways to evade or challenge them, that it reduces the Environmental Protection Agency's already insufficient authority to regulate toxic chemicals."
Rosenberg's letter pointed out other glaring problems with Shimkus' draft, including the fact that while it acknowledges that certain populations—namely infants, children, pregnant women, the elderly and people who live near chemical plants—may be more vulnerable to chemical exposure, it doesn't require the EPA to do anything to protect them. In addition, Rosenberg said, the bill would allow Congress and the courts to ignore the recommendations of government and independent scientists.
Rep. Waxman (D-CA) was equally dismissive. "This draft would restrict existing testing authority so that EPA could only require testing in the limited set of circumstances," he said at the same March 12 House hearing where Landrigan testified. "On top of that, the Catch-22 of current law would remain. The agency would be required to identify risk before being authorized to test for risk. This is the roadblock that has stymied the agency for years."
Instead of taking its cues from the chemical industry, Congress could look across the Atlantic for a workable model. Nearly a decade ago, the European Union adopted the "precautionary principle" to protect its citizens from toxic chemicals. Authorities there will not allow a chemical on the market until its manufacturer demonstrates it is safe. Last year, the European Commission published a study that found that chemicals in Europe are "considerably safer" since the EU established its Registration, Evaluation, Authorization and Restriction of Chemicals regulation in 2007, and manufacturers there are finding safer substitutes for toxic chemicals.
Here in the U.S., conversely, our toxic chemical policy is best described ascaveat emptor—let the buyer beware—and it's making us sick.
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One of nature's epic events is underway: Monarch butterflies' fall migration. Departing from all across the United States and Canada, the butterflies travel up to 2,500 miles to cluster at the same locations in Mexico or along the Pacific Coast where their great-grandparents spent the previous winter.
Millions of People Care About Monarchs<p>I will never forget the sights and sounds the first time I visited monarchs' overwintering sites in Mexico. Our guide pointed in the distance to what looked like hanging branches covered with dead leaves. But then I saw the leaves flash orange every so often, revealing what were actually thousands of tightly packed butterflies. The monarchs made their most striking sounds in the Sun, when they burst from the trees in massive fluttering plumes or landed on the ground in the tussle of mating.</p><p>Decades of educational outreach by teachers, researchers and hobbyists has cultivated a generation of monarch admirers who want to help preserve this phenomenon. This global network has helped restore not only monarchs' summer breeding habitat by planting milkweed, but also general pollinator habitat by planting nectaring flowers across North America.</p><p>Scientists have calculated that restoring the monarch population to a stable level of about 120 million butterflies will require <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/icad.12198" target="_blank">planting 1.6 billion new milkweed stems</a>. And they need them fast. This is too large a target to achieve through grassroots efforts alone. A <a href="https://www.fws.gov/savethemonarch/CCAA.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">new plan</a>, announced in the spring of 2020, is designed to help fill the gap.</p>
Pros and Cons of Regulation<p>The top-down strategy for saving monarchs gained energy in 2014, when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service <a href="https://www.fws.gov/southeast/pdf/petition/monarch.pdf" target="_blank">proposed</a> listing them as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. A decision is expected in December 2020.</p><p>Listing a species as endangered or threatened <a href="https://www.fws.gov/endangered/esa-library/pdf/listing.pdf" target="_blank">triggers restrictions</a> on "taking" (hunting, collecting or killing), transporting or selling it, and on activities that negatively affect its habitat. Listing monarchs would impose restrictions on landowners in areas where monarchs are found, over vast swaths of land in the U.S.</p><p>In my opinion, this is not a reason to avoid a listing. However, a "threatened" listing might inadvertently threaten one of the best conservation tools that we have: public education.</p><p>It would severely restrict common practices, such as rearing monarchs in classrooms and back yards, as well as scientific research. Anyone who wants to take monarchs and milkweed for these purposes would have to apply for special permits. But these efforts have had a multigenerational educational impact, and they should be protected. Few public campaigns have been more successful at raising awareness of conservation issues.</p>
<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="91165203d4ec0efc30e4632a00fdf57d"><iframe lazy-loadable="true" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/KilPRvjbMrA?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span>
The Rescue Attempt<p>To preempt the need for this kind of regulation, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service approved a <a href="https://www.fws.gov/savethemonarch/pdfs/Monarch%20CCAA-CCA%20Public%20Comment%20Documents/Monarch-Nationwide_CCAA-CCA_Draft.pdf" target="_blank">Nationwide Candidate Conservation Agreement for Monarch Butterflies</a>. Under this plan, "rights-of-way" landowners – energy and transportation companies and private owners – commit to restoring and creating millions of acres of pollinator habitat that have been decimated by land development and herbicide use in the past half-century.</p><p>The agreement was spearheaded by the <a href="http://rightofway.erc.uic.edu/" target="_blank">Rights-of-Way Habitat Working Group</a>, a collaboration between the University of Illinois Chicago's <a href="https://erc.uic.edu/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Energy Resources Center</a>, the Fish and Wildlife Service and over 40 organizations from the energy and transportation sectors. These sectors control "rights-of-way" corridors such as lands near power lines, oil pipelines, railroad tracks and interstates, all valuable to monarch habitat restoration.</p><p>Under the plan, partners voluntarily agree to commit a percentage of their land to host protected monarch habitat. In exchange, general operations on their land that might directly harm monarchs or destroy milkweed will not be subject to the enhanced regulation of the Endangered Species Act – protection that would last for 25 years if monarchs are listed as threatened. The agreement is expected to create up to 2.3 million acres of new protected habitat, which ideally would avoid the need for a "threatened" listing.</p>
A Model for Collaboration<p>This agreement could be one of the few specific interventions that is big enough to allow researchers to quantify its impact on the size of the monarch population. Even if the agreement produces only 20% of its 2.3 million acre goal, this would still yield nearly half a million acres of new protected habitat. This would provide a powerful test of the role of declining breeding and nectaring habitat compared to other challenges to monarchs, such as climate change or pollution.</p><p>Scientists hope that data from this agreement will be made publicly available, like projects in the <a href="https://www.fws.gov/savethemonarch/MCD.html" target="_blank">Monarch Conservation Database</a>, which has tracked smaller on-the-ground conservation efforts since 2014. With this information we can continue to develop powerful new models with better accuracy for determining how different habitat factors, such as the number of milkweed stems or nectaring flowers on a landscape scale, affect the monarch population.</p><p>North America's monarch butterfly migration is one of the most awe-inspiring feats in the natural world. If this rescue plan succeeds, it could become a model for bridging different interests to achieve a common conservation goal.</p>
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