BY DR. ANNE STARLING A trip to the grocery store can be an exhausting experience for those of us who are habitual label-readers. We’re keeping an eye out for calorie counts, trans fats, and allergens lurking in unexpected places. But when it comes to the non-food items such as cleaning products, personal care products, and other chemicals we use around the house, the unpronounceable lists of ingredients can leave us bewildered. We might just shrug our shoulders and assume that if they’re selling it, it must be safe. After all, the government establishes safety standards for many products, from motor vehicles to children’s toys. But the surprising fact is that of the over 80,000 chemicals registered for production and sale in the United States, the majority have never had to undergo comprehensive safety testing.
This is an alarming situation, to say the least. Chemical production has skyrocketed over the last half century, and our regulatory system has not kept up. Chemicals enter our homes and bodies through the food we eat, the products we use, and even the furniture and building materials in our houses. Some of these chemicals have been shown in laboratory studies to cause health problems, including hormonal disruption, birth defects, neurological and immune system disorders, and cancer. And yet many of these potentially harmful chemicals are still in widespread use in everyday products. Unlike food additives and medicines, which are regulated by the Food and Drug Administration, the chemicals that make up household cleaning products, personal care products, and cosmetics may be sold without any evidence as to whether or not they are safe for use in our homes or on our bodies. How did this happen, and what can we, as consumers and citizens, do to keep our families safe?
This glaring omission can be traced back to the outdated law that regulates chemical safety in everyday products: the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), passed in 1976. TSCA set standards for new chemicals to be registered for production or import into the United States, and made special rules restricting some of the chemicals of greatest concern at the time, including polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), asbestos, and lead. However, it also “grandfathered in” thousands of existing chemicals, with no additional safety evaluation required. During the 37 years since TSCA was passed, only about 200 of the over 60,000 chemicals on the existing chemicals list have undergone comprehensive safety testing, and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has successfully used the law to restrict only five chemicals. The Environmental Defense Fund calls TSCA “badly broken” because it places a “nearly impossible burden on government to prove actual harm in order to control or replace a dangerous chemical”.
This safe-until-proven-otherwise assumption is dangerous and frustrating for consumers, who cannot be expected to stay informed about the latest toxicology research on every chemical ingredient in the products they buy. Fawn Pattison, Executive Director of Toxic Free NC, calls this situation “a breach of trust.” She says that “people expect that these products have been tested, and that they’re safe, before they get on the market.” But far too often this is not the case.
When chemicals are widely produced and sold in the United States, they may also become widespread in our environment, including farmland, drinking water, and the air inside and outside of our homes. This means that chemicals that weren’t intended for human consumption end up in our bodies – and the bodies of our children. The Environmental Working Group conducted a study in 2009 of the umbilical cord blood of ten newborn babies and found over 200 synthetic chemicals detectable in their blood at birth. While we don’t know what the effects of these chemical exposures will be on our children’s health, this seems like an unacceptable risk. As Pattison says, “Our world is so polluted that our children are born pre-polluted. We can’t afford this as a society. We need them to be as smart and healthy as they can be. It makes no sense to be stacking the deck against them before they are born.”
So how can we protect our children from toxic chemicals found in everyday products? According to Pattison, “the first thing that parents who are concerned about this should do is pick up the phone and call their senators. Let them know that this situation is crazy and they need to do something about it.” (You can find your representatives’ contact information here). The US senate is currently considering a bill that would update chemical safety laws, called the Chemical Safety Improvement Act of 2013. However, this proposed bill does not go nearly far enough to fix our broken regulatory system, and does not have the support of most environmental health advocacy groups. Many have criticized the new bill for its lack of timelines and deadlines, lack of specific protections for vulnerable populations, and especially for the provisions of the bill that would limit the ability of states to have stricter regulations than those created by the EPA. Pattison of Toxic Free NC says, “We really need states to be able to preserve their own authority when EPA falls short.” While it is encouraging for a chemical safety bill to have bipartisan support, Pattison says, “we would be going backwards if the senate passed this bill the way it looks now. We want to recognize where the shortcomings are, and fix those, and then move forward.”
While we work toward comprehensive reform of chemical safety laws, Pattison also recommends some simple steps that consumers can take to reduce their families’ exposures to toxic chemicals. These steps include washing our hands and our children’s hands frequently and especially before eating to remove chemical residues, buying organic produce whenever possible, avoiding heating food in plastic containers, and choosing personal care and cleaning products that are fragrance-free. A number of organizations such as Toxic Free NC and the Environmental Working Group provide lists on their websites of less-toxic products for consumers to use as shopping guides. Ultimately, strong and effective regulations at the federal level will be necessary to protect consumers from the hazards posed by untested chemicals in household products. As Pattison says, “We’re not helpless in the face of this problem. There’s a solution right in front of us, and if we can only get behind it, it’s within our reach.”
Dr. Anne Starling earned her PhD in Epidemiology from the Gillings School of Global Public Health at UNC Chapel Hill. Her research examines the health effects of environmental pollutants, with an emphasis on women’s reproductive health.