Reform laws to keep harmful chemicals from children

OP-Ed Written by Sarah Evans, PhD

Published in the CT Post, October 12, 2012

As the mother of a 4-year-old, I recently received the first of many  back-to-school shopping lists. The items seemed innocuous — markers, glue  sticks, a three-ring binder. Like a rite of passage, parents all over the  country check these items off similar lists in the days leading up to the start of school. To make purchasing decisions we balance financial considerations with Batman or princess obsessions. Most of us don’t check to see what these items are made of, or look for a label confirming its safety. We assume that if it is marketed for children it must be safe.

Yet a recent report from the Center  for Health, Environment and Justice and the Empire  State Consumer Group, “Hidden Hazards: Toxic Chemicals Inside Children’s  Back-to-School  Supplies,” suggests otherwise. Lunchboxes, backpacks, binders, rain boots  and raincoats made of polyvinyl chloride (PVC) were found to contain phthalates,  plasticizers associated with reproductive, cognitive and behavioral deficits.  And 75 percent of the items tested contained phthalates above the level that the  federal government allows in toys.

While most school-age children don’t chew on their backpacks, phthalates are  particularly insidious because they leach from plastics and are detected in air  and dust. Studies conducted by the Centers  for Disease Control and Prevention detected phthalates in the bodies of  virtually everyone tested, with highest levels in children.

How is it possible that items intended for use in the classroom contain  chemicals linked to cognitive and behavioral problems? Unlike FDA regulations  that ensure medications are safe when used as prescribed, in most instances  there is no such mandate that keeps harmful chemicals out of our everyday  products. This may come as a surprise to those who understandably assume if you  can buy it off the shelf, it’s safe. Unfortunately, the Toxic Substances Control  Act of 1976 (TSCA) is broken and ineffective legislation that requires no  chemical safety testing. More than 30 years after TSCA was passed, we know  little about effects on the developing fetus or child of the 80,000 chemicals on  the market today, or the consequences of exposure over the course of  a lifetime.

What we do know about exposure to common chemicals is unnerving. The CDC  has detected hundreds of chemicals, many with known cancer causing, neurotoxic  or endocrine-disrupting properties in blood, urine and even breast milk. Studies  show increasing evidence of developmental toxicities of highly prevalent  chemicals such as phthalates, BPA, triclosan and flame retardants. Meanwhile  autism, ADHD, asthma, diabetes and childhood cancers are increasing in ways that  can’t be explained by genetics or improved diagnostics.

Fortunately, there is growing support for TSCA reform in Congress and from  organizations like the American  Medical Association and American  Academy of Pediatrics. The Safe Chemicals Act, championed by Sen. Frank  Lautenberg of New Jersey, aims to hold industry accountable for proving the  safety of consumer products. It recently passed a vote in special committee and  is slated for a vote in the Senate. Such comprehensive legislation has existed  in Europe since 2007 in the form of regulations called REACH.

As a scientist and a mother I know how overwhelming it is to make healthy  purchasing decisions for a family. It’s difficult to avoid particular chemicals  when manufacturers aren’t required to list them on labels, something the Safe  Chemicals Act seeks to change. So what can we do?

Start by thanking Connecticut Sens. Blumenthal and Lieberman, who have signed  on to support the Safe Chemicals Act. Urge your local representatives to pass a  state bill to identify and restrict chemicals of concern to children as  California, Maine and Washington have done. Join The Coalition  for a Safe and Healthy Connecticut to find out more about initiatives in our  state. Support corporations who are phasing out products that contain PVC and  other toxic chemicals. Using shopping guides available from organizations like CHEJ  and Environmental Working Group, I was able to purchase a number of PVC-free  school supplies for my daughter at a major retailer.

Connecticut has been a pioneer in enacting chemical legislation to protect  children’s health. We were the first state to ban BPA from baby bottles and  infant formula containers, which led to voluntary removal by many companies, and  finally a federal ban this year. We should continue to lead the way in  comprehensive chemical policy reform.

With strong chemicals legislation in place an enormous burden will be lifted  from parents. It shouldn’t require research worthy of a master’s degree to buy a  lunchbox. Our time would be better spent reading a book to our children.

Sarah  Evans received her doctorate in neuroscience from Weill  Cornell Medical College and is currently a postdoctoral fellow in  Environmental Pediatrics in the Department  of Preventive Medicine at Mount  Sinai School of Medicine in New York City. Her research focuses on the  effects of prenatal and early life exposure to phthalates on brain development.  She is a native of Ridgefield and resides with her family in Norwalk.

Original Article