New look at chemical safety

High cancer rates rightly inspire reexamination of how we regulate toxic substances

May 23, 2010|By Brenda M. Afzal and Jenny Levin

Beginning in 1971, the President's Cancer Panel has been at the forefront of providing critical information on the status of cancer. For the first time in its nearly 40-year history, the panel has focused on environmentally induced cancers, meaning those that result from exposure to chemicals and pollution. The members concluded in this year's report that "the true burden of environmentally induced cancers has been grossly underestimated" and recommended significant changes to better protect people from cancer-causing chemicals.

According to the National Cancer Institute, about 41 percent of Americans will be diagnosed with cancer during their lifetime, and approximately 21 percent will die from it. In 2009 alone, about 1.5 million new cancer cases were diagnosed in the U.S. Maryland has the 19th-highest cancer rate in the country, with 26,000 people diagnosed each year. This level of cancer incidence means that few of us are untouched; if we ourselves are not battling cancer, a family member, friend or co-worker almost certainly is.

The alarming rates of cancer in our country have caused many scientists and environmentalists to reconsider the way chemicals are managed. The chemical industry produces nearly 700 new chemicals each year, yet under current law, chemical companies have no obligation to demonstrate that chemicals are safe for our health.

By now, there are more than 80,000 industrial chemicals in commerce, but there is no available health information for roughly 62,000 of them. Meanwhile, many of these chemicals are finding their way into our food, air, water and common household products. For this very reason, the Maryland General Assembly acted just last month to restrict bisphenol-A (BPA), a suspected carcinogen, from baby bottles, and toxic flame retardants from food crates and other products.

Fortunately, the President's Cancer Panel presents us with comprehensive, common-sense solutions going forward. In addition to raising awareness, the panel recommends tightening regulation of chemicals that may cause cancer. One suggestion is to ensure that a chemical is safe first, rather than continuing the dangerous practice of assuming that a chemical is "innocent until proven guilty." Changing this practice could also have a profound impact on the rates of asthma, learning disabilities and reproductive disorders, which are all increasingly linked to chemical exposure.

The good news is we have a real opportunity this summer to make lifesaving reforms to the way chemicals are managed. In fact, just last month, Senator Frank Lautenberg, Democrat of New Jersey, and Reps. Henry Waxman (Democrat of California) and Bobby Rush (Democrat of Illinois) introduced legislation that could more effectively keep harmful chemicals out of our air, food, water and consumer products.

The new legislation — the Safe Chemicals Act of 2010 — would update the Toxics Substances Control Act of 1976, which is widely agreed to be ineffective. In its 34-year history, the toxic substances act has resulted in only 200 chemicals (out of 80,000) in commerce being assessed for safety and only five chemicals being restricted for use.

The new bill should plug many of the loopholes that have allowed chemicals such as BPA to be in baby bottles, toxic flame retardants to be in children's pajamas and cadmium to be in toys. However, the legislation should be strengthened in a couple of key areas to truly advance our efforts in preventing environmentally induced cancers.

Most importantly, this legislation should immediately phase out the most hazardous chemicals, including PBTs (persistent, bio-accumulative toxins). Lead, for instance, is present in most brands of lipstick, posing a danger for pregnant women or even young children playing dress-up. In addition to lead, PBTs such as mercury (present in light bulbs and power plant emissions, for example) and formaldehyde should be phased out of commerce except for critical uses.

By ensuring a safer, less toxic environment, we can improve our health and well-being while also reducing the costs borne by our health care system. We should seize this once-in-a-generation opportunity to improve our quality of life and reduce the burdens placed on families struggling with chronic disease. Let's get it right.

Brenda M. Afzal is director of health programs in the University of Maryland School of Nursing's Environmental Health Education Center. Her e-mail is afzal@son.umaryland.edu. Jenny Levin is environmental health advocate with Maryland PIRG. Her e-mail is jlevin@marylandpirg.org.

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