There are more than 80,000 chemicals on the market today, but only about 200 of them have been tested for safety. That’s because the Environmental Protection Agency can only require safety testing after there is proof that a substance poses a health risk under the Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976 — the only major environmental regulation that has not been updated. Only five chemicals have been regulated since the law was enacted. As for getting rid of a dangerous substance — well, under the 1976 law, the EPA wasn’t even able to successfully ban asbestos, a known carcinogen.
A new report by the President’s Cancer Panel is calling for a major shift in how we regulate thousands of new chemicals that are introduced each year. The report says that children are far more susceptible than adults to being harmed by exposure to environmental toxins, even before they are born. Need to Know’s Laura LeBlanc talked with Dr. Leo Trasande, co-director of Mount Sinai’s Children’s Environmental Health Center, about why children are at special risk.
Laura LeBlanc: There was a pretty dramatic statement in this report that said babies are born “pre-polluted.” Why are fetuses, newborns and children at special risk?
Dr. Leo Trasande: There are a number of reasons why developing organs and especially children are at risk to chemical exposures. One is pound-for-pound, they drink more water, they breathe in more air, they eat more food … Another reason is that their organs are just developing, and subtle changes can have permanent consequences that can’t be fixed after the fact. You can’t press rewind and rerecord on a child’s development, whether it’s the brain, the lungs, the blood cells or any other system in the body. They also have more years in life in which to develop diseases as a result of subtle changes that result from chemical exposure.
LeBlanc: How are babies born with chemicals already in their body?
Trasande: Unfortunately, while the placenta is a great protector and there are systems in place in the mother to protect the child from chemical exposures during the prenatal period, the fact remains that for certain chemicals, the placenta can be a sieve and children can end up being a sink for certain chemicals. That’s very well documented for the chemical methylmercury that is linked to adverse impact on fetal brain development. Subsequently studies have identified in the order of 200 chemicals, the ones that we can detect in laboratory studies … those 200 have been detected consistently, almost universally in children just out of the womb. And I’m not saying all those 200 chemicals are linked to all these cancers, but it’s what little we know about a suite of chemicals within that 200 that’s cause for concern.
LeBlanc: What kind of impact do you think this report might have on the push to tighten up those regulations?
Trasande: There have been multiple wars on cancer — they’ve taken different elements of the campaign and focused on them in varying degree. I don’t think prevention has gotten quite the focus that it deserves and clearly toxic substances … reform is a major element of prevention, not just of certain cancers but a host of chronic diseases which are a major cause of morbidity in the United States. I think this could clearly push the accelerator on efforts to reform how chemicals are regulated in the United States.
LeBlanc: There has been some press coverage suggesting the report is alarmist, or overstating the case. Based on your work and your expertise, do you think that is a valid concern?
Trasande: The President’s Cancer Panel is not blaming all cancers on chemical exposures. It’s certainly not saying that every chemical is toxic even at the lowest dose. But what it is saying, however, is that there is an increasing amount of evidence to support the role of environmental chemicals in chronic diseases, especially cancer, and I think that’s very fair and balanced … Hopefully this report will [spur] a paradigm shift towards a broader recognition of the environment and chemical exposure, and their role in these chronic diseases.
LeBlanc: What do you think people need to know about this report? What should they take away from this?
Trasande: I think they should take away an awareness that chemical exposures are a concern that they should look at more carefully. That doesn’t mean that one has to put oneself in a bubble and limit their exposure to every chemical … under the sun. There are some safe and simple steps that a family can [take] to limit exposure to chemicals in the environment. They can make sure their home doesn’t have lead-based paint hazards, they can limit their consumption of methylmercury in some fish, they can eat organic, they can limit spraying pesticides in homes, they can have their home tested for radon, they can make sure their water supply isn’t contaminated by arsenic … there has been a great deal of technological progress in the last 20 years — I’m not trying to roll that back. But what we do have to understand is that we don’t have to have technological progress at the expense of human life, or at the expense of disease and disability.
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