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Christopher Gavigan

Christopher Gavigan

Posted: January 20, 2010 06:32 PM

Memo to Capitol Hill: Want to Save the Country $5 Billion? Thought So.

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As initially posted on Healthy Child Healthy World.

In 1976, the first commercial supercomputer was made and Apple was formed by Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak. The mobile phone patent was granted and NASA unveiled the first space shuttle. It was the beginning of the technological revolution, but we were still learning from mistakes made during the industrial revolution.

We were widely using ozone damaging CFCs -- slowly destroying the thin veil of atmosphere that protects us from the sun's most intense UV light. Lead-based paint and leaded gasoline were still legal -- polluting our air and soil with a potent neurotoxin and poisoning our children. We had a lot to learn.

And we have. Our understanding of science and technology has expanded to realms that were unimaginable 30 years ago. Something else has been rapidly developing during that same time period: a public health crisis.

Since the 1970s:
•Childhood cancers have increased 20 percent
•A woman's lifetime risk of breast cancer has increased 20 percent
•Asthma prevalence has doubled percent
•The birth defect resulting in undescended testes has increased 200 percent

These increases are not due to a growing population -- and these health conditions are just a few examples of the chronic diseases which now affect half of our population and account for 70 percent of deaths. Treating chronic diseases comprises 75 percent of this country's health care costs, crippling our health care system. And yet, there is a crucial component of this public health crisis that no one in the reform debate on Capitol Hill is discussing: chemical policy.

Over 30 years ago Congress passed the Toxic Substances Control Act to protect health and the environment. It was a regulatory system written based on our scientific knowledge then. But we know much more now.

We know that the developing fetus is extremely vulnerable to toxic exposures -- and it doesn't matter the dose so much as the timing. An exposure on one day of development can lead to irreversible damage, but have no detrimental impact on another day. We also know that chemicals can turn genes on and off and lead to multi-generational impacts. We also know that hormone-disrupting chemicals can have impacts at infinitesimally small levels -- and that in some cases they are more toxic at lower levels than higher levels. The basic tenets of toxicology have been turned on their head in the last 30 years, but our main mechanism to control toxins has not changed at all.

By reforming this archaic law, we can reduce Americans' exposure to toxins, improve public health and lower health care costs. According to a new report by Safer Chemicals Healthy Families,"The Health Case for Reforming the Toxic Substances Control Act,"

Estimates of the proportion of the disease burden that can be attributed to chemicals vary widely, ranging from
•1 percent of all disease
•5 percent of childhood cancer
•10 percent of diabetes, Parkinson's disease, and neurodevelopmental deficits
•30 percent of childhood asthma.

Whatever the actual contribution, effective chemical policy reform will incorporate the last 30 years of science to reduce the chemical exposures that contribute to the rising incidence of chronic disease. And any decline in the incidence of chronic diseases can also be expected to bring health care cost savings. Even if chemical policy reform leads to reductions in toxic chemical exposures that translate into just a tenth of one percent reduction of health care costs, it would save the U.S. health care system an estimated $5 billion.

It's been 34 years since TSCA was enacted, yet the EPA has only required testing on 200 of the more than 80,000 chemicals produced and used. What is this ignorance costing our health? During the same time period, scientists have discovered that many chemicals and heavy metals used in everyday products have profound effects on developing systems. Yet, as it's written, TSCA does not give the EPA the authority to do much of anything to respond to these studies and protect public health. Even when the EPA tried to ban asbestos -- a 20 year fight costing millions of dollars -- industry sued the agency and won. The ban was overturned.

In the Environmental Working Group's report on the failure of the asbestos ban, the authors succinctly ask "If EPA can't ban a known carcinogen, at which no level of exposure is safe, how can EPA regulate any toxic substance?"

We've reaped the benefits of the industrial revolution. We're still reeling in the innovations of the technological revolution. It's time for a common sense revolution. We can improve health and reduce health care costs by simply limiting our exposure to toxins.

Tell Congress it's time for a common sense approach on toxic chemicals.

 

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