Let's face it: The current system for overseeing chemicals used in consumer products is broken.
Last year, Congress banned lead in children's products. But recently, we learned that some manufacturers that phased lead out of children's jewelry are using cadmium, another brain toxin that's a carcinogen to boot. How can we prevent the next chemical crisis from threatening our health and contributing to rising health costs?
When Congress enacted the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) in 1976 to protect us from toxic chemicals, it grandfathered in some 60,000 chemicals with no testing requirements. Another 20,000 chemicals were added to this list over the next three decades. Yet the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has required testing on only 200 chemicals. The EPA's hands were so tied that it didn't even have authority to ban asbestos, an established carcinogen banned in 40 countries.
A recent report by some of the nation's leading public health professionals describes the toll that toxic chemicals are taking on our health and our budget. This report, called the Health Case for Reforming the Toxic Substances Control Act, summarizes the insidious contribution of environmental toxins to an array of chronic health problems.
For example, childhood cancers have increased by more than 20 percent since 1975. A woman's lifetime risk of breast cancer is now one in eight, up from one in 10 in 1973. Chemicals in common products like baby bottles and "sippy" cups have bisphenol A, a hormone disruptor linked to cancer. Composite wood used to make many things around the house often contains formaldehyde, a known cancer-causing toxin. Children's toys and jewelry have been found to be contaminated with lead and cadmium, both neurotoxins.
And there's more than cancer to worry about. Learning and developmental disabilities now affect one in six children. Since the early 1990s, reported cases of autism spectrum disorder have increased tenfold. Children and pregnant women are routinely exposed to chemicals known to be developmental toxins, including methylmercury, lead, cadmium, brominated flame retardants, dioxins, arsenic and many more. More than 100 chemicals that adversely affect the brain and nervous system have also been implicated as playing a role in the development of neurodegenerative diseases, like Alzheimer's and Parkinson's disease.
Sound science links toxic chemicals to health problems that result in enormous health care costs. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that chronic diseases affect 133 million Americans and account for 75 percent of health care costs. Some portion of these costs can be attributed to toxic chemical exposure. We could achieve significant savings to the health care system through better regulation of industrial chemicals. The Health Case report estimates that a 0.1 percent decrease in the incidence of chronic diseases would reduce direct U.S. health care expenditures by $5 billion per year by 2020. Numerous peer-reviewed studies estimate savings at much higher rates, for example: 5 percent decrease in childhood cancer, 10 percent decrease in neurodevelopmental deficits, and a 30 percent decrease in childhood asthma cases. And remember, every one of those statistics represents someone's children.
We must reform the outdated, ineffective Toxic Substances Control Act to protect the most vulnerable, especially children and pregnant women, phase out the worst chemicals, and require basic safety data for all chemicals before they are put into products. Our consumer products like household cleaners, cadmium-laden children's toys, or electronics with toxic flame retardants will continue to be packed with harmful chemicals. Congress is expected to consider new legislation to bring the outdated toxics law into the 21st century the coming months.
We can stop the toxic chemical of the month cycle and save money on health costs. Thirty years of a broken chemical policy is enough.
Kathleen Schuler is a senior policy analyst with the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy and is a contributing author of The Health Case for Reforming the Toxic Substances Control Act.
Minuteman Media distributed this op-ed.