POLITICS
05/02/2014 01:37 pm ET | Updated May 05, 2014

Toxic Chemical Bill Championed By Industry, Chided By Children's Health Advocates

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Brad Springer, 10, has fought and defeated neuroblastoma cancer -- twice. Today, according to his dad, the now healthy Idaho boy is wielding his powers in another battle.

Brad was among four children dressed up as "Toxin Freedom Fighters," complete with green shorts, capes and masks, in the halls of Congress on Wednesday. They hand-delivered a petition that urges legislators to strengthen the nation's regulation of toxic chemicals.

"As a parent you wonder, 'Was it something I gave him?' You really have no idea," said Zach Springer, Brad's father. "You can't directly link toxins to his cancer, but it certainly doesn't help to have them out there."

"Brad is anxious to help prevent others from experiencing what he has gone through," he said.

The children's visit to Congress came on the heels of Tuesday's House hearing on the Chemicals in Commerce Act, introduced in February to amend the outdated Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) of 1976. A similar bipartisan bill was unveiled before the Senate last year.

While all sides agree TSCA reform is long overdue, a consensus remains elusive on just what that should look like.

The Toxin Freedom Fighters' petition, organized by eco-friendly product manufacturer Seventh Generation and signed by more than 120,000 Americans, argues that the drafted laws, which are widely supported by industry, fall short.

"The proposals before Congress to 'reform' our toxic chemical laws are more about protecting the chemical industry than they are about protecting public health," the petition reads.

House Democrats and witnesses during Tuesday's hearing went as far as to say the proposed law may even weaken chemical regulations, citing the law's ability to preempt more stringent state standards and its inability to force companies to disclose the names of toxic chemicals in products.

"The net effect is to go backward," Andy Ingrejas, national campaign director for the nonprofit Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families, told the House Subcommittee on Environment and the Economy.

That's an especially damning charge given how harshly environmental advocates have criticized the current law. The nearly 40-year-old TSCA assumes a chemical is safe until proven toxic, and grants the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency little power to act even when tests show a chemical to be unsafe.

Of the more than 80,000 chemicals permitted for use in the U.S., the EPA has only required toxicity testing of around 200. The agency has banned just five.

Representatives from groups including the American Chemistry Council, Procter & Gamble and the chemical company BASF expressed their support on Tuesday for the reform legislation at hand, saying it strikes a fair balance between public health and the economy.

"We need to protect against unreasonable risks, but we also need to be able to keep making the products that make every other aspect of our society useful," said Beth Bosley, president of Boron Specialities, representing the Society of Chemical Manufacturers and Affiliates.

Others, however, argue that health and economic considerations need not be at odds.

"While restrictions on the use of some toxic chemicals may appear prohibitive at first, the advantage is that such regulations can stimulate innovation in green chemistry," Philippe Grandjean, chair of environmental medicine at the University of Southern Denmark and an adjunct professor at the Harvard School of Public Health, told The Huffington Post.

What's more, research suggests that exposure to toxic chemicals can be an economic drain on society. One study published in 2011 tallied $76.6 billion in children's health care costs, lost working hours and reduced IQ points attributable to toxic chemicals and air pollutants.

The 2011 study took into account only a fraction of today's health concerns. For example, it didn't include the more recent findings of $1.49 billion lost due to childhood obesity resulting from exposure to bisphenol A, or BPA, an industrial chemical compound.

"I would suggest that stricter rules that aim at protecting the next generation and especially their brains would be a worthy purpose that we should be able to agree on," said Grandjean. "After all, these exposures cause harm to children, no matter whether their parents are CEOs, members of Congress or just average consumers."

Brad Springer will probably never know if his cancer was connected to chemicals he may have breathed, ingested or absorbed early in his life. But experts say there's increasing evidence that exposure to many chemicals, even at low levels, does elevate risks for a range of health problems.

Dr. Philip Landrigan, chairman of the Department of Preventative Medicine at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York City, testified about the rapid rise of chronic diseases among children during a House hearing on the first draft of the Chemicals in Commerce Act in March.

"Asthma has tripled. Childhood cancer incidence has gone up by 40 percent over the past 40 years. Autism now affects one child in 88. Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder affects about one child in seven, according to data from the CDC," Landrigan said. "There is a strong body of scientific evidence that toxic chemicals have contributed to diseases in children."

While the redrafted Chemicals in Commerce Act underscores the need to consider risks to children and other disproportionately exposed and vulnerable populations, it doesn't provide a specific framework to do so, public health advocates warn. Further, they note, the law would require the EPA to weigh costs to industry before limiting the use of a chemical in children's products.

Advocates also say the proposed reform could override state laws and programs that protect the public against dangerous chemicals, a point underscored by attorneys generals from 13 states in a letter to the subcommittee.

On Wednesday, the Vermont House approved a bill to protect children from toxic chemicals. Paul Burns, executive director of the Vermont Public Interest Research Group, recalled heavy lobbying on part of the chemical industry in the state. Nationally, the chemical industry spent a record sum on lobbying in the first quarter of 2014, according to the Center for Public Integrity.

"We were up against the biggest players. There were more industry lobbyists opposing us than on the GMO issue," said Burns, referring to the hotly debated GMO-labeling law Vermont passed last month.

On their mission to reverse the burden of proof on toxic chemicals, Brad and his fellow green superheroes were accompanied into Congress Wednesday by a handful of parent advocates, including Zach Springer; Heather Buren, a San Francisco firefighter who is working to raise awareness about toxic chemical exposures among her ranks; and John Replogle, CEO of Seventh Generation, who noted that his team conducted some quick tests around the Senate building during the visit and discovered pervasively high levels of lead.

Also with the group was Kristi Marsh, a mother of three and breast cancer survivor who has spent the last several years educating and empowering women to make choices that limit the toxic chemicals in their homes.

"But the bottom line is, we can't do it alone," she said. "We need legislation to truly protect our families."

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