THE BLOG

It's Time to Protect Consumers From Toxic Chemicals

07/24/2014 03:02 pm ET | Updated Sep 23, 2014
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Almost 80,000 chemicals are sold in the United States, and we are exposed to many of them on a daily basis. We know with alarming certainty that some of these cause cancer, but most remain unexamined and unregulated.

In its 2010 report, entitled, Reducing Environmental Cancer Risk: What We Can Do Now, the president's Cancer Panel declared, "Research on environmental causes of cancer has been limited by low priority and inadequate funding." As a result, "the consequences of cumulative lifetime exposures to known carcinogens and the interaction of specific environmental contaminants remain largely unstudied."

The International Agency for Research on Cancer, a part of the World Health Organization, states flatly that 100 agents in use today are "carcinogenic to humans."

Several hundred others are classified as either "probably" or "possibly" carcinogenic to humans.

Harmful chemicals abound in household cleaning agents, personal care products, cosmetics, as well as pesticides and weed killers. American consumers have no assurance that everyday products are safe for children and adults.

Surprisingly, the United States lacks federal legislation to protect consumers from an abundance of harmful chemicals in everyday products.

In fact, the 1976 Toxic Substances Control Act, or TSCA, a toothless law, is the only major U.S. environmental law that has never been brought up to date. The late Senator Frank Lautenberg (Democrat, New Jersey) proposed the Safe Chemicals Act, which was the first attempt to reform the Toxic Substances Control Act. Senator Lautenberg's Safe Chemical Act would have required manufacturers to provide information regarding the chemicals contained in consumer products.

Currently, in the United States, products are "innocent until proven guilty." That is, consumer products are presumed to be safe until human harm is demonstrated. This obsolete system jeopardizes the health and safety of children and adults.

The Safe Chemical Act would have required careful scrutiny and regulation of toxic chemicals. Manufacturers would have been required to prove that a chemical is safe in order to be on the market. Currently, the EPA can mandate safety testing only after there is evidence that chemicals have caused harm.

Unfortunately for American consumers, and despite Senator Lautenberg's tireless efforts to bring the Safe Chemical Act to the Senate floor for a vote between 2010 and 2012, this formidable legislation never received Senate approval. Powerful lobbyists for industry, including the American Chemistry Council, opposed the bill, contributing millions of dollars to the political campaigns of candidates for federal offices.

Determined to offer some measure of protection to American consumers, Senator Lautenberg paired with Senator David Vitter (Republican from Louisiana) to sponsor a new bill entitled the Chemical Safety Improvement Act, which served as a compromise to the original Safe Chemicals Act.

However, this compromise bill was not as protective of consumers as the original Safe Chemicals Act, and currently, there is no timetable for its passage.

Now there is a new threat to the health of millions of Americans, due to a weed killer known as Enlist Duo, a product of the Dow Chemical Company. Enlist Duo represents a combination of two toxic chemicals: glyphosate (an ingredient of Monsanto's weed killer, Roundup) and the choline salt of 2,4-D for use in controlling weeds in genetically-engineered corn and soybeans. It is alarming to learn that 2,4 D is one of the ingredients of Agent Orange, which was banned by the EPA. A final decision by the EPA will not be rendered until the United States Department of Agriculture evaluates whether or not the genetically-engineered seed can be sold.

Enlist Duo was developed because weeds are becoming more resistant to weed killers containing glyphosate (Roundup), and farmers need a new agent to reduce the spread of glyphosate-resistant weeds. It is reasonable to suppose that weeds will develop resistance to Enlist Duo in time, as well.

An additional concern is that it has been estimated that there are more than 5,600 schools that will be exposed to the corn and soy fields that will be sprayed with Enlist Duo, according to the Environmental Working Group.

No one knows the extent to which school children will be affected by this new blend of chemicals. In fact, 2,4 D was evaluated by the EPA in 1986 and 1988 because there were concerns that it increased cancer risk, and specifically, because of its link to non-Hodgkin's lymphoma.

Many concerned citizens and not-for-profit organizations have raised questions regarding the safety of Enlist Duo and its impact on the environment. And in June 2014, 35 doctors, scientists and researchers, including Dr. Chensheng (Alex) Lu of Harvard School of Public Health and Dr. Raymond Richard Neutra, a retired division chief of the California Department of Public Health, sent a letter to EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy urging her to deny Dow's application.

Dr. Philip Landrigan, dean for global health at Mount Sinai School of Medicine, offered this warning regarding Enlist Duo:

Exposures to herbicides in early life can lead to disease in childhood or disease later on in adult life or even old age ... Herbicide chemicals can also cross from mother to child during pregnancy and prenatal exposures that occur during the nine months of pregnancy are especially dangerous.

Shouldn't manufacturers prove the safety of Enlist Duo before risking the health and safety of children and adults?

We have an urgent need for chemical policy reform to protect consumers, young and old alike.

In the meantime, let's ask the Environmental Protection Agency and the United States Department of Agriculture to deny approval of Enlist Duo until they, and Dow Chemical, can honestly assert that this combination of powerful chemicals will cause no harm to humans or animals, now or in future generations. As a board member of Less Cancer, a not-for-profit organization dedicated to the reduction of cancer risk, I urge all Americans to call for the regulation of chemicals that surround us each day. Let's begin with careful examination and regulation of weed killers such as Enlist Duo.