THE BLOG
06/23/2012 11:25 am ET Updated Aug 23, 2012

'Toxies' Highlight Harmful Chemicals in Our Midst

Normally I look forward to red carpet events, but I need to get off my chest how much I resent the list of nominees for Sunday's award ceremony (and not just because I'm not nominated!). The extensive careers of these questionable nominees highlight how flawed the chemical industry has become. I'm taking a stand for their immediate retirement and for much-needed reform to ensure similar detestable careers won't even get the chance to start.

I should probably clarify that I'm talking about the Toxies -- an annual satirical awards ceremony in Los Angeles that (dis)honors the most harmful and pervasive toxic chemicals and pollutants. While the nominee names may not be as recognizable (or pronounceable) to you as Emmy nominees, they are far more likely to play leading roles in your community and even your home.

Every week, we see another study linking chemicals in our homes, schools, and workplaces to cancer, infertility, autism, developmental disorders, and more. Scientists and public health advocates alike believe it is no coincidence that rates for these conditions in the population have risen parallel to our exposure to toxic chemicals.

This touched me personally when my wife was diagnosed with breast cancer. It was as confusing to us as it was heartbreaking. She had none of the risk factors, and eats and does all the right things. Together we have learned about the ubiquitous toxic exposures in our daily lives and our country's broken regulatory system that does not adequately protect us. In honor of my wife, who is now a survivor, I will be emceeing the Toxies this year to help attract the attention and political action needed to prevent the many cases of cancer and other diseases brought about by chemical overload.

The list of nominees includes some of the worst of these toxic chemicals, including those that are currently produced as well as some banned chemicals that have persisted in the environment due to extensive use in the past. All nominees, old or new, are posing great exposure and health risks right now and deserve our immediate attention. Some nominees we sit in (like Halogenated Flame Retardants in furniture and baby products), some we drink (like Nitrates found in drinking water ), some we put on our bodies (like Phthalates in fragrances, lotions, shampoos, and nail polish), and some we learn in (PCBs are often present in old fluorescent lighting fixtures in school buildings).

But just banning this year's nominees won't necessarily be enough to make our furniture, water, or shampoo any safer. We need to think about how these chemicals even got to the market in the first place. Isn't it someone's job to screen new chemicals before allowing them to be used?

Nope.

The law that regulates industrial chemicals, the Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976 (TSCA), does not allow the EPA to require chemical companies to submit any toxicity data on new chemicals. Moreover, if the company wants to keep a new substance's identity "confidential business information" the EPA cannot disclose that information to the public or even to state and local government agencies. Time has shown that the EPA can only take action on a chemical after its extensive use has clearly caused harm to the human population. In these cases we wish we were safe, not sorry.

The nominee PCB is one of only four chemicals successfully restricted by the EPA under TSCA (despite what you might think from all the mesothelioma law firm commercials, asbestos is not one of these four -- the decision to ban it was overturned in court). However, PCBs were unregulated for so long that they've penetrated our environment and food supply.

One of the most egregious examples of TSCA's weakness is the nominee Halogenated Flame Retardant (HFR). One particular HFR, named pentaBDE, was used in furniture for 30 years until the EPA negotiated a phase-out with the chemical producers (they were not able to actually ban it under TSCA). This extensive use and consequent consumer exposure has been linked to health damage in our population in over a dozen studies. Studies have found associations between our increased pentaBDE body burdens and reduced IQ in children, reduced fertility, impaired cognitive and motor development, among other consequences.

If the story had a happy ending, our furniture would now be made fire-resistant using safer alternatives (like tightly woven natural fabrics). However, pentaBDE has simply been replaced with other similar HFRs which have been shown to be just as toxic. It's a toxic cycle.

Improving legislation to give the EPA and other government agencies more authority to protect us will not be an easy feat. The chemical lobby is very powerful and its PR team rivals that of Hollywood A-listers -- their communications are led by Dick Cheney's former press secretary and funded by Exxon and Dow Chemical.

Deplorable as they may be, shining the spotlight on the Toxies nominees this Sunday will hopefully bring much-needed attention to the issue and create the political pressure necessary to fix the system that let them get work in the first place.