Who can figure out what's in what we inhale, eat, drink and absorb through our skin or via injection? Who has time to worry about what's tracked onto the floor where our kids play?
Yes, it's inconvenient to worry about how what we buy in the hardware store (or food market, beauty counter, pharmacy, doctor's office, flooring, or furniture store) affects our family's health. It's easier to choose to eat organic than to think about the health impact of what we can't control: the brew of interactive, toxic chemicals which the exterminator, house painter, road repair team, farmer, fish farmer, agribusiness, local industry, hospital, manufacturer and gas driller infuse into our air, water, land and food supply.
Exposure to toxic chemicals is a major, known contributor to the rise in chronic diseases, cancer and childhood illnesses. That's why it always amazes me that some people believe that they can be healthy in an unhealthy world. It's great to trust the power of minds and lifestyles to protect individual health, but that doesn't confer immunity from societal choices. But with all the media attention on insurance reform and all the shared enthusiasm for lifestyle options, there's scant attention paid to near inescapable health risk factors that affect every single one of us.
Whatever the differences in our values or lifestyles, we're all exposed to toxic chemicals. As the individualistic bias in health keeps our focus on our individual bank account or health state, we forget that the best way to safeguard both is to protect our collective health and environment.
The moment to shift our focus is now. For the first time in 34 years, a newly introduced Safe Chemicals Act aims to do what so many of us wrongly assumed government was doing all along: Assure that the chemicals to which we're all exposed and which show up in 95 percent of Americans tested, are safe.
Since chemicals are invisible, we don't know that they are in our bodies, where they come from, how long they remain, or how they affect us. The only clue we get that this overall brew is dangerous is when we (or a loved one) get sick, as more and more people do. But even then, we can't trace that illness to any single exposure--so it's easier to blame our luck, our genes, or our attitude.
Over 80,000 chemicals are in use today, many of them known contributors to diseases like cancer, learning disabilities and reproductive disorders. The government we expect to guarantee their safety lacks resources for studies; nor are manufacturers required to prove safety. According to the Environmental Working Group (EWG), "chemical companies are not required to tell (the Environmental Protection Agency) EPA how their compounds are used ... (nor) to conduct basic health and safety testing of their products ... Eighty percent of all applications to produce a new chemical are approved by the U.S. EPA with no health and safety data.. in three weeks ..."
Absurdly, the burden is on the EPA to prove chemicals harmful, even though it lacks legal authority to compel industries to study, withdraw, monitor use, or modify any chemicals, including known carcinogens, neurotoxins and immune system modulators.
Where do these chemicals wind up? In us and in our children. At birth, newborns harbor over two hundred chemicals, testing reveals. Due to lower body weight and lesser ability to shield their developing brains, infants and children are at higher risk from exposure.
Fortunately, with strong public support, that can change thanks to the Safe Chemicals Act, introduced by Senator Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ), to revise the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) which determines the policies for public protection. If the bill passes, for the first time, the burden of proof for safety will transfer to industry.
Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families is a coalition of groups that supports the bill and will monitor its progress to assure that effective provisions pass into law. Safe Chemicals Director, Andy Igrejas, who I interview this week on my upcoming radio program, wants the bill strengthened so the EPA is empowered to act immediately to curtail the use of the most highly toxic chemicals.
Concurrent bills will move through the Senate and House this spring and summer. Due to chemical industry pushback, passing a bill that protects public health will require strong public support. To receive environmental health info, radio interviews with health leaders, and action updates on chemical safety, please sign up at www.healthjournalist.com.