by Lindsay Dahl, Deputy Director for Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families

Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families is a coalition of over 450 public health, environmental, community and parent organizations working to protect American families from toxic chemicals. Lindsal Dahl is the organization’s Deputy Director.

Agreement is growing across the political spectrum and among scientists, health professionals, and concerned parents that federal law does not adequately protect Americans from toxic chemicals. The primary law responsible for ensuring chemicals are safe—the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA)—was passed in 1976 and has never been updated. The law is so weak that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has only been able to require testing on less than two percent of the more than 80,000 chemicals that have been on the market at some point since TSCA was adopted.

Much has changed since TSCA became law decades ago. Scientists have developed a more refined understanding of how some chemicals can cause and contribute to serious illness, including cancer, reproductive and developmental disorders, neurologic diseases, and asthma.

By reforming TSCA, we can reduce our exposure to toxic chemicals, improve our nation’s health, and lower the cost of health care. This report documents some of the scientific findings and economic analysis in support of meaningful TSCA reform.

Chronic disease: many trends are on the rise

More than 30 years of environmental health studies have led to a growing consensus that chemicals are playing a role in the incidence and prevalence of many diseases and disorders in the United States (for full citations please visit our Chemicals and Health report). Some of which include:

Leukemia, brain cancer, and other childhood cancers, which have increased by more than 20% since 1975.
Breast cancer, the incidence of which went up by 40% between 1973 and 1998. While breast cancer rates have declined in recent years in post-menopausal white women, rates of breast cancer in pre-menopausal white women and post-menopausal black women remain unchanged. A woman’s lifetime risk of breast cancer is now one in eight, up from one in ten in 1973.
Asthma, which approximately doubled in prevalence between 1980 and 1995 and has continued to rise. In 2009, nearly 1 in 12 Americans had asthma.
• Conceiving and maintaining a pregnancy affected 40% more women in 2002 than in 1982. From 1982 to 1995, the incidence of reported difficulty almost doubled in younger women, ages 18–25.
The birth defect resulting in undescended testicles (cryptorchidism) increased sharply between 1970 and 1993, with uncertain trends since then.
Learning and developmental disabilities, including autism and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, affect nearly one in six U.S. children, as of 2008.Between 1997 and 2008, the prevalence of autism increased nearly 300% nationally.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 133 million people in the U.S.—almost half of all Americans—are now living with these and other chronic diseases, which account for 70% of deaths and 75% of U.S. health care costs.

In general, these and other common diseases or disorders are the result of many factors, but many chemicals, by themselves or in combination with other chemical and non-chemical factors, can be harmful to multiple systems in the body, increasing the risk of adverse health outcomes.

The health and economic benefits of reforming chemical policy

Estimates of the proportion of the disease burden that can be attributed to chemicals vary. A recent World Health Organization review conservatively estimates that the global disease burden related to chemicals is more than 8%. Here in the United States, researchers estimate that 5% of childhood cancer and 30% of childhood asthma are attributable to chemical exposures.

Whatever the actual contribution of chemicals to the overall disease burden or specific diseases, effective chemical policy reform will incorporate the last 30+ years of science to reduce those exposures that contribute to chronic disease and provide incentives to move to safer alternatives. Any decline in the incidence of chronic diseases also can be expected to lower health care costs.

The U.S. now spends over $7,000 per person per year directly on health care. This sum does not include the cost of additional impacts, such as the costs of educating children with learning disabilities or emotional costs to a family coping with a mother’s breast cancer diagnosis. Chemical policy reform holds the promise of reducing the economic, social, and personal costs of chronic disease by creating a healthier future for all Americans.

The need to protect our health from toxic chemicals is pressing, and we need your help. Please take action and tell Congress to pass STRONG laws on toxic chemicals.

Lindsay Dahl is the Deputy Director for Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families where she directs the campaign’s field organizing, helps build coalition partners, advises on strategic communications and online organizing.