12/01/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

"The Change" Our Children Need: REACHing for Kid Safe Chemicals

This past year, and especially in recent months, the country has been obsessed with a discussion about change. Today, I am hopeful, and dare I say excited, for what will follow. This is the change and momentum that could translate into real action. 2009 could (and should) be the catalyst for a landslide of changes, including the end of the widespread sale of products that quietly poison us and our children. It's the facts that are the unfortunate realities our nation has to address now. At the local hospital near you, right now, babies are being born with over 200 industrial chemicals in their cord blood. This wasn't the case even fifty years ago and it's most definitely a key factor in the rising numbers of children with cancer, asthma, allergies, learning disabilities, and more aliments and illnesses. This is an alarm bell of unprecedented proportion.

While the Bush administration has done its best to hide and distort the science and weaken the arms of government that are supposed to protect "we the people," the next administration will have no choice but to address the problem. WHY?

Our broken regulatory system allows manufacturers to use chemicals in everyday products without adequately testing them for health effects, allows corporations to externalize all expenses onto taxpayers, and has almost no teeth to limit or ban chemicals that demonstrate health risks until hundreds of thousands of people have been harmed. Our system MUST be changed. In fact, change is inevitable. Here are two reasons why:

1. Last year, the European Union began implementation of their new chemical regulatory system known as REACH. A fundamental difference between REACH and our own regulation (known as the Toxic Substances Control Act or TSCA) is that REACH requires chemicals to be evaluated before they are placed on the market and become ubiquitous in people's households. It's not such a novel idea, in fact, it seems the most obvious way to regulate chemicals. Most Americans assume that this is how things are regulated domestically, but in fact, it works in reverse. Most products hit the shelves with little prior safety testing and, for the bulk of products, manufacturers don't even have to divulge what's in them. There is a dearth of knowledge about the chemicals found in babies' cord blood, the roughly 80,000 other chemicals registered for commercial use, nor the 200-300 new ones created every year. Talk about flying blind.

As I said, things are about to change in part because of REACH. Given the global nature of the economy, there are many chemicals and products manufactured in the US and exported to the EU. These manufacturers will have to comply with REACH, by substituting safer chemicals for the ones identified as "substances of very high concern," if they want to continue selling their goods abroad.

The Environmental Defense Fund recently published a report, Across the Pond, which outlines a lengthy list of which US manufacturers will be impacted and where. "The fact that so many chemicals already designated as dangerous by EU officials are actively being produced and used in the United States should dispel any notion that the problem is limited to only a few 'bad actors,'" said Richard A. Denison, Ph.D., EDF Senior Scientist and author of the report. "Toxic chemicals grabbing recent headlines - such as bisphenol A used in baby bottles and food cans, phthalates used in kids' toys, and flame retardants used in furniture - are just the tip of the iceberg in terms of chemicals that demand scrutiny."

"This report serves as an early warning to companies making and using these dangerous chemicals that they will be at a competitive disadvantage unless they proactively seek to eliminate exposures and develop safer alternatives," Denison cautioned. "Scrutiny of these chemicals is only going to grow, so chemical companies should support efforts to modernize the decades-old U.S. chemicals policy that has shielded chemicals from needed testing and appropriate control." US companies can either comply with REACH or risk financial loss to other more competitive and savvy enterprises.

2. In the footsteps of REACH, US lawmakers have proposed a new policy to provide better protections for the American people, their families, and our environment. The Kid Safe Chemical Act was originally introduced to Congress in 2005 and was re-introduced this spring in order to, as the name states, make chemicals safe for kids. The understanding is that if we make chemicals safe for the most vulnerable, they will be safe for everyone. If passed, the Kid Safe Chemical Act would require, among other things:
• chemicals be safe for the most vulnerable and be tested before they are sold;
• manufacturers to prove that the 62,000 chemicals that were "grandfathered in" without testing by TSCA thirty years ago are safe in order for them to remain in commerce;
• EPA to develop a list of "priority" chemicals, like those found in people, that will receive immediate attention;
• regular testing to determine what chemicals are in people and in what amounts (also known as biomonitoring);
• regular updates of health and safety data;
• requires that this information be publicly available.

This sweeping legislation gives government the power to protect its citizens, gives people the power to make informed decisions, gives manufacturers an incentive to find safer substitutes, and gives future generations an opportunity to be born without 200 industrial chemicals in their blood.

This change is long overdue. This past year we watched as parents, frustrated with the overwhelming task of trying to identify which plastic baby bottles were safe, stopped buying plastic en masse. Glass baby bottle manufacturers were overwhelmed and a black market for glass sprang up on Ebay. Many manufacturers responded by finding safer plastics from which to make bottles. Tired of buying toys that were then recalled due to lead, parents again joined advocacy groups pushing for an overhaul of the Consumer Product Safety Commission. The laws regarding lead were re-written and other protections were put in place, like a ban on three phthalates found in children's products.

People are demanding change, and the next President will be required to facilitate it. If we keep working together and insist that nothing less than absolute safety for our children will be good enough, 2009 may well be the year of sweeping change.