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Toxic Law's "Unsafe" Flaw

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24 July 2012, 1:11 PM
Chemicals aren't dangerous unless proven so
Firefighters are often exposed to a “chemical cocktail” of emissions from flame retardant chemicals. (BLS)

At a Senate hearing, today, about the EPA's authority to control exposures to toxic chemicals, Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Cali.) wondered aloud: what would Americans say if asked whether they thought products containing poisonous chemicals are tested before being sold.

Most probably think there is a system in place to protect them from such products before they make their way into homes and bodies, Boxer guessed. “That a chemical has to be proven safe before it is used."

But that is not the case, she said. “In actuality, the EPA has to prove that it is unsafe.”

At an oversight hearing of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, discussion focused on chemical flame retardants as a prime example of what is wrong with the federal law that regulates chemicals. The committee heard from an EPA official, a mother and legislator, scientist, San Francisco firefighter and talking heads for industry.

Chemical flame retardants, which are present in a wide array of household products, have been linked to cancer and developmental, neurological and reproductive problems. These chemicals are used in building materials, electronics, furnishings (including those used by infants and children), motor vehicles, airplanes, plastics and textiles. There is strong evidence that these toxic chemicals do nothing to slow the spread of fire. To make matters worse, when these chemicals are present in products that burn, the chemicals make the smoke more toxic, presenting risks to firefighters.

Although enacted with the intention to protect the public and the environment from harmful chemicals, the Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976 is inherently flawed in its ability to require that chemical companies prove that their chemicals are safe before they get into products. Tomorrow, lawmakers in the Senate EPW Committee can take steps to protect American families and address TSCA’s shortcomings by voting for Sen. Lautenberg’s Safe Chemicals Act (S. 847).

Reforming TSCA is a public health imperative and while our lawmakers should bring the Safe Chemicals Act to Senate floor without further delay, Republican lawmakers have expressed that they don’t want Sen. Lautenberg to move forward with his bill.

As Sen. Lautenberg (who first introduced this legislation seven years ago) said: “I and millions of people across this country did not want another year to pass without progress on toxic chemicals.”

Lautenberg and other proponents of TSCA reform described the chemical industry’s trickery in keeping flame retardant products in American homes. They mentioned industry’s many tactics, including bankrolling so-called experts and forming front groups for fire safety. Lautenberg mentioned a Chicago Tribune series which details the blatant dishonesty of the chemical industry.

Hannah Pingree (D-ME) testified as a legislator and a mother. She spoke of being tested for chemicals and having elevated levels of mercury and other toxics in her blood. She also is six months pregnant and a mother of one.

“Our babies are born in this world with (toxic chemicals) in their bodies,” she said.

Tony Stefani, a retired San Francisco fire department captain, founded the San Francisco Firefighters Cancer Prevention Foundation in 2006 after surviving his own battle with the disease.

He mentioned the growing rates of cancer among his men and the particular “chemical cocktail” of emissions that firefighters are exposed to. Often when these flame retardant chemicals are burned, they become even more potent. Stefani said firefighters’ protection equipment does not protect them from these chemicals and that results from tests find several firefighters with alarmingly elevated amounts of chemicals in their blood.

Sen. Boxer concluded the hearing with a yes or no question, asking all witnesses whether they agree that chemical manufacturers should have to prove through unbiased studies that their products are safe for pregnant mothers, unborn children, firefighters and other citizens, before being put on the market.

All witnesses except for those representing industry, answered in the affirmative. Boxer knew why.

“We’re going to have a hard time because there is a lot of money on the line.”

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