How is it that our shampoo can contain carcinogens and our floor cleaner reproductive toxicants?
For over a decade, nurses have been working with a wide range of partners, including other health professionals, environmentalists and health-affected groups, to update the nation’s chemical safety policy. Written in 1976, the Toxic Substance Control Act was an ineffectual safeguard for people and the environment from exposures to toxic chemicals in our air, water, food and products. It did not require companies to do any sort of pre-market testing of their products for toxicity or potential harm.
Worse, it established that any chemicals that were already in the marketplace (some 80,000 chemicals) were “generally regarded as safe” without any evidence about their safety or harm to confirm this assumption. This was a way to “grandfather” a host of toxic chemicals and thus protect them from new requirements for safety testing. The burden of proof regarding toxicity was placed on the public and the Environmental Protection Agency, rather than requiring manufacturers to prove that a chemical or product is safe before letting us use the product in our homes, schools or workplaces. In every instance in which the EPA tried to prove that a chemical was dangerous, the industry prevailed in keeping it on the market. The EPA could not even ban asbestos—a known carcinogen with unquestionable evidence of harm.
In 2016, after making significant compromises, the Republican Congress passed and President Obama signed a new chemical safety law. The biggest compromise made was inclusion of a provision that precludes states from passing chemical safety laws that are stricter than the new federal law once a chemical is under review by the EPA. Historically, we have looked to progressive states to pass legislation on health and safety before federal laws have made their way through Congress and to the President. Now, states are barred from further protecting their citizens from toxic chemicals, even if their citizens overwhelmingly want the added protection.
Another problem with the 2016 chemical safety law is the timeline for review of potentially, and often known, toxic chemicals. In the first year, only 10 new chemicals are required to be reviewed. By 2019, only 20 chemicals need to be under review at any given time. The Registry for Toxic Effects of Chemicals includes over 150,000 chemicals for which there is some toxicological evidence; over 80,000 chemicals are in the marketplace. Think about how many years it will take to get through that list at a pace of 10 to 20 chemicals per year. Consider, too, how many years and decades we will continue to see preventable health effects from toxic chemicals that have not yet been reviewed.
As a nurse whose mantra is “evidence-based practice,” I find it difficult to help individuals and communities navigate the purchasing decisions required to live, work, learn and play in a healthy environment because of the lack of information about so many of the chemicals that make up our everyday products. Because we don’t require complete labeling for the vast majority of products, we can’t even do our own independent literature searches regarding the ingredients.
When nurses started working on revamping the old chemical law, we had three elements that our coalition members agreed on: 1) We need basic health and safety information on all chemicals in the marketplace, 2) We must be able to protect the most vulnerable of our population, including the fetus, infants and children, from the effects of toxic chemicals, and 3) The EPA must have the power to ban chemicals that create the greatest risk of harm.
In June 2017, the EPA issued new guidance documents, as required by law, spelling out how they are going to review chemicals under the new law. These guidelines, issued under an anti-regulation administration, allow the EPA to pick and choose which uses they will consider when determining if the chemical poses an unreasonable health risk. Consider the case of lead. Lead can be found as a contaminant in air, water, food, toys and even in lipstick. If the EPA elects to look at only one or two of these sources, they could underestimate the health risks, allowing a toxic chemical to be used in products that would otherwise be deemed unsafe.
These new guidelines were the last straw; nurses joined other organizations in suing the EPA for placing the public at an unreasonable health risk.
“The new guidelines fly in the face of our attempts to protect the public’s health,” said Katie Huffling, Executive Director of the Alliance of Nurses for Healthy Environments.
Three separate suits were filed in District Courts around the country. It is anticipated that the judges in the courts will consolidate the cases into one.
With so many policy changes occurring-—in health care, the environment and other important areas—it is sometimes difficult to keep up. We invite you to stay informed, join our calls, get involved and join a growing number of nurses who are concerned about potentially toxic chemicals in our everyday lives.
Follow the court case and get information about chemical safety and chemical policy at www.saferchemicalshealthyfamilies.org.
Join our free monthly national calls with other nurses who are concerned about chemicals and public health policy. Get the details at the Alliance of Nurses for Healthy Environments website, https://envirn.org/policy-advocacy.