08/01/2010 09:03 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Choose Life: The Religious Mandate for Chemical Policy Reform

Before serving in a parish, I worked as a hospital chaplain on a cancer ward at a Chicago hospital. Arriving at work each morning was like entering the night of the living dead. After seeing dozens of people dying and hundreds of families afflicted by grief, religious teachings about the importance and sanctity of health made very clear sense. Jesus' commitment to healing; the Hindu and Buddhist commitment to ahimsa, or non-violence; the Koran's recognition that good health is a sign of Allah's mercy; Judaism's demand that society and individuals protect human health: each of these teachings recognizes life's value, and that protecting health is a sacred duty.

When I left the parish to work as a religious environmentalist, I didn't expect to spend time with cancer victims. To my surprise, when I visited sites polluted with toxic chemicals, many of them in poor communities, I continued to meet people with cancer, people who wondered why so many others in their community had cancer, too.

I learned about cancer clusters and the health threats posed by toxins. And there was more. I visited Appalachian mining counties where everyone's water was stored in ugly plastic tanks in their backyard because the groundwater was poisoned. I visited urban and rural communities within an hour of New York City where there's so much chemical pollution in the ground that the clean-up strategy is to pump groundwater through filtering systems and back into the ground, 24/7, for years on end.

I met a New Jersey scientist who, when asked at a forum about what he would do to protect his family from cancer-causing chemicals, said, "I wouldn't drink well water in New Jersey."

And I've started reading that new genre of environmental stories, the mutating reptile stories -- frogs growing extra legs, alligators growing stunted genitals, male fish inexplicably laying eggs -- with growing scientific proof that chemicals called endocrine disruptors are to blame.

The more I read about this topic, the more I got the sense that there's a massive science experiment taking place, that we're all being exposed to a growing number of toxic chemicals in varying doses, without knowing anything about it.

I don't know about you, but I never signed the release form for this.

Then, earlier this year, the President's Cancer Panel issued its report for 2008-2009, dedicated to the topic of environmental cancer. This panel, whose members were appointed by President Bush, called for surprisingly strong government action to reduce the public's risk of cancer from chemical exposure. The panel's co-chairs reported the following:

With nearly 80,000 chemicals on the market in the United States, many of which are used by millions of Americans in their daily lives and are un- or understudied and largely unregulated, exposure to potential environmental carcinogens is widespread ... [T]he public remains unaware of many common environmental carcinogens ... [and are] also unaware that children are far more vulnerable to environmental toxins and radiation than adults. Efforts to inform the public of such harmful exposures and how to prevent them must be increased. All levels of government, from federal to local, must work to protect every American from needless disease through rigorous regulation of environmental pollutants.

Make sure you read that last sentence carefully. Yes, in our day and age, it really does represent an unashamed call for stricter, tougher regulation.

Last Thursday, the House of Representatives introduced the Toxic Chemicals Safety Act, an important piece of legislation that would go a long way towards protecting people and the environment from toxic chemicals.

This would be the first major overhaul of our nation's chemical policy since 1976, when Congress passed the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA). TSCA (pronounced like the opera) is in a woeful state of affairs. Around 62,000 chemicals were grandfathered under TSCA. About 20,000 more have entered commercial use since then. But since 1976, according to the non-partisan Government Accountability Office -- a widely respected government agency -- only 200 chemicals have been tested for safety.

The evidence that chemical policy reform is needed is clear and convincing, and more and more groups are calling for action. In recent years, scientists have found that numerous chemicals once thought to be safe are dangerous at very low levels. Environmental justice groups, concerned about pollution's impact on communities of color and poor communities, have been watching the studies and sounding the alarm for years.

Now, religious groups are getting involved. Last month, GreenFaith, the National Council of Churches, the Religious Action Center for Reform Judaism, and religious groups in ten states released The Interfaith Statement for Chemical Policy Reform.

The statement calls for increased protections for our nation's most vulnerable communities; for workers, children, and pregnant mothers; and for natural systems. It also calls for investments in a "green" economy, so that our economy creates jobs and products that protect the web of life rather than tearing it apart. The groups are collecting signatures from concerned people of faith in an effort to move public opinion on this issue.

In the end, chemical policy reform is about protecting health and life -- the lives of people, the life of the planet. The Bible puts it succinctly when it says, "Choose life." It's time for our country to do exactly that.

The Rev. Fletcher Harper, an Episcopal priest, is Executive Director of GreenFaith, an interfaith environmental coalition.