Calls to better protect US public from chemical health risks

By Martin Leggett - 04 May 2011 13:16:1 GMT
Calls to better protect US public from chemical health risks

Two papers, published in this May's edition of Health Affairs, have pointed to the need for concerted action, in order to bring the hotchpotch of 83,000 potentially hazardous chemicals under proper regulatory control. The authors say that the current US law, the Toxic Substances Control Act, which dates back to 1976, and is unable to protect the American public from a complex chemical threat - one that is particularly threatening to young children.

The problem of an increasing overload of exposure to chemicals, during day-to-day life, has become more recognized over the last decade or two. It is now known that many chemicals - both on their own, and in combination - have the potential to cause or exacerbate chronic health problems. These range from reproductive disorders and diabetes, to learning and behavioral difficulties.

But the current legislation just isn't up to the task of protecting the public. So says Sarah A. Vogel, of the Johnson Family Foundation, and Jody Roberts, of the Chemical Heritage Foundation. The Toxic Substances Control Act puts the onus firmly on the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) to prove that a chemical is dangerous, rather than on the manufacturer to show that it is safe. And the burden of proof for the EPA is worryingly high.

This approach is at odds, both with legislation controlling medicinal drugs, and also with the attitude in many other countries, such as in the EU. There, there is much tighter control over the health-aspects of chemical substances - with companies having to provide safety data themselves. The current approach in the US makes policing the vast range of produced chemicals difficult and expensive for the federal authorities. That restricts efforts to too small a part of the risk spectrum.

However, the problem is that reform of the Act has hit a legislative roadblock, with ongoing budgetary constraints. So the authors are proposing instead that the EPA should focus its efforts on developing partnerships with professional bodies and academic institutions. These can then take up a program of priority testing, of those chemicals where the exposures and risks are highest - and so bring in a protective umbrella for the US public faster than could otherwise be achieved.

The second paper, also published in Health Matters, reinforces Vogel and Robert's concerns. It looks at how dangerous chemicals are affecting children's health, and paints a picture of strong links to asthma, mental retardation, and cancer. Coauthored by Philip Landrigan - a leading authority on the health implications of a chemicalized environment - the paper supports a push towards better regulation, and a wider alliance between the EPA and others. That way both the health, and economic, burden of insidious chemical pollution can be tackled - actions that are long overdue.