03/23/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Safer Chemicals Mean Safer Lives and Saved Money

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When I was a resident, training in Internal Medicine and Occupational and Environmental Medicine, I saw a patient who changed the course of my life. She was a young woman, pregnant with her first child, who asked her ob/gyn whether chemicals in her workplace could harm her fetus. Her ob/gyn referred her to the clinic where I then worked.

She worked in a specialty chemicals manufacturing facility, in the quality control laboratory. She took tiny samples from each batch of chemicals and dissolved them in a solvent to test them for purity. She had a large stack of Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDS) with some info about the chemicals she handled.

But when I started to go through the stack, I noticed some real problems. Many of the chemical names weren't listed. Instead there were annotations of "trade secret". Most of the health information was blank or unknown. I eventually threw the stack of papers on the desk in disgust. What was I supposed to tell my patient?

It was my first introduction to the flawed chemical safety system in the United States. I was shocked then to learn that chemicals that come on the market don't need to be tested for safety, manufacturers can keep most information secret, and the government doesn't have the authority to take action to protect the public from hazardous chemicals.

I saw that patient in 1994, but unfortunately nothing has changed since then.

There's a real cost to this flawed chemical safety system. In fact, although we advised that woman and her employer to play it safe and avoid exposures during pregnancy, the employer concluded there was no clear evidence that the chemicals were harmful (because they weren't tested). My patient had to decide between losing her job and risking her baby. Her Sophie's Choice turned out badly.

During her third trimester, there was a chemical spill in the lab which soaked her clothes and dissolved her gloves, she became ill, and shortly afterward, she lost her baby. Since then, the science has become clear, and the solvent she handled is considered a known reproductive toxicant. Too little, too late.

Not only is there a terrible personal and emotional toll when someone is sickened by toxic chemicals, but there is also a serious strain on our health care system.

In my blog yesterday, I mentioned a new report that is out today. It's called "The Health Case for Reforming the Toxic Substances Control Act". Although perhaps I'm biased because I'm one of the co-authors, I really do think it's worth a read.

The report summarizes only peer-reviewed scientific literature. It cites that about 5% of childhood cancer; 10% of diabetes, Parkinson's disease, and neurodevelopmental deficiencies; and 30% of childhood asthma are likely to be attributable to environmental exposures. Unquantifiable but significant fractions of other health conditions, such as reproductive problems and miscarriages, are due to chemicals as well.

The report concludes that even if chemical policy reform only reduces these diseases by one-tenth-of-one-percent, we would save $5 billion dollars per year in health care costs. That's a big deal, especially since the chemical policy reform we need is common-sense, cost-effective, and straightforward.

But my motivation isn't just the health care cost savings. I'm fighting for my patient. She shouldn't have had to suffer because of a flawed chemical safety system. If doctors have the data they need on chemical toxicity, they can advise their patients. Then we can prevent what we cannot cure.

This post originally appeared on NRDC's Switchboard blog.