We are all familiar with major industrial contamination episodes, such as those described in A Civil Action, Erin Brockovich, and Dark Waters, and their impacts on health. Despite the evidence of harm caused by unchecked, and sometimes intentional, chemical exposure in these real-life stories, human exposure to toxic chemicals remains ubiquitous. We are all exposed to numerous toxic chemicals in everyday life, with a disproportionate impact on lower-income populations and communities of color. But few of these chemicals have been tested, and even fewer have been regulated.
In 1976, Congress passed the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), which aimed to limit these chemical exposures among consumers. Under TSCA, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) had the authority to regulate chemicals based on potential harm to human health. In 2016, the Obama Administration sought to improve TSCA with the Lautenberg TSCA reform. This, among other improvements, allowed the EPA to test the 62,000 unregulated chemicals were already in use at the time of TSCA’s original passage. It also expanded the EPA’s chemical testing capacity so that the safety of chemicals could be evaluated before they reached the market. While TSCA is not an all-encompassing policy, the reform took crucial steps forward to protect health.
Progress has slowed since President Trump took office. Under Trump’s EPA, the evaluation of chemical safety under TSCA was made much less stringent, allowing hundreds of new chemicals onto the market for consumer and industrial use with limited scientific evidence. Changes to TSCA are not the only steps that disregard the science on chemical safety. Bans on multiple high profile chemicals with known toxicity, including chlorpyrifos, asbestos, and trichloroethylene, have been slowed or rejected. And glyphosate, a pesticide in Round-Up known to cause cancer, was determined to be non-carcinogenic by the EPA. This deliberate disregard for science puts us all at risk.
We can take steps to keep toxic chemicals out of consumer products and prevent exposure, or we can deal with the health and environmental consequences for decades to come.
Despite the inaction on chemical safety at the federal level over the past four years, states have taken important steps to reduce exposures. For example, California and Maine have both enacted bans on per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) in make-up and food packaging. PFAS are used for a multitude of industrial and consumer purposes, from fire-fighting foams to non-stick pans, stain resistant fabrics, and cosmetics. They have been linked with myriad health effects, such as cancer, obesity, and thyroid disease. Further, several states including, most recently, Massachusetts, have set drinking water standards for PFAS. These state-level policies have been enacted while PFAS have remained fundamentally unregulated at the federal level.
States have also adopted overarching chemical policies to protect consumers, including California’s Proposition 65 and Massachusetts Toxics Use Reduction Act. While attempts have been made by the federal government to limit the reach and impact of such laws, these state-level policies have nonetheless remained important public health protections. Yet, patchwork regulations for chemical safety are not optimal for consumers or industry, highlighting the need for federal leadership.
The partisan debate about chemical safety and public health is a recent phenomenon. TSCA, both its initial passage and its amendment, was enacted with strong bipartisan support. It has become abundantly clear that we need decisive action on chemical regulation at all levels of government, including the federal level, to ensure health. Therefore, as individuals and communities, we must vote for and support leadership that will use impartial science, health-based evidence, and decision-making processes that prioritize protecting our health rather than ignoring scientific evidence, even if it harms the bottom line of industry.
Stories of widespread community chemical exposure, like those recounted in A Civil Action, Erin Brockovich, and Dark Waters, came to light when dedicated citizens and activists recognized harm and demanded change. Now we face a new era of extensive contamination with PFAS and other emerging contaminants, and we have a clear choice. We can take steps to keep toxic chemicals out of consumer products and prevent exposure, or we can deal with the health and environmental consequences for decades to come. We must prioritize leadership that does the former, or our communities may become the next cautionary tale on an already too-long list of chemical safety failures.
Photo by Maggie Fitzpatrick