Point of View

Innocent until proven guilty: Toxic chemicals need more scrutiny

February 14, 2014 

Innocent until proven guilty is one of the cornerstones of the American justice system and, indeed, the American way of life. One would be hard-pressed to find an American who doesn’t know this essential principle.

What very few Americans know is that this principle also guides the introduction of chemicals into the marketplace and into our lives. Though a federal law has been in place since 1976 – the Toxic Substances Control Act – this legislation is so weak that virtually none of the 80,000 chemicals on the market today is regulated because chemical manufacturers don’t have to prove or ensure that they are safe prior to public exposure.

Just ask the more than 300,000 West Virginians who still aren’t sure their water is safe. Lack of regulation led to a chemical leakage into the water supply, and a month later still not enough is known about the chemicals themselves for officials to make convincing statements that the water is safe. My granddaughters in Charleston missed more than a week of school, and the local economy took a big hit. Even now, trust in the water system has not been restored.

This should be more than a cautionary tale for North Carolinians who may soon have fracking operations nearby. Concerns about chemicals leaking into the water supply are exacerbated by the fact that not only are the chemicals in the fracking process not regulated but the chemical companies have convinced our political leaders that the identity of the chemicals is proprietary, meaning the public does not have a right to know what we may be exposed to.

The lack of regulation is in the interest of the chemical industry, and it is our children who pay the price. Cancer is slowly and steadily increasing in American children, rising 22 percent between 1975 and 2004. Autism now affects 1 in 88 American children. Exposure to toxic chemicals is an important factor in these devastating conditions.

Since virtually everyone is at risk, it behooves us all to get involved in reducing our exposure to toxic chemicals.

At the federal level, the Senate has been considering an update to the Toxic Substances Control Act for several years. Congress needs to dramatically increase the scrutiny of a chemical before it is introduced into the marketplace. Naturally, chemical companies have watered down proposed legislation and blocked its progress. Tell our senators that it is unconscionable that our health – and particularly the health and development of our children – should be compromised by toxic exposure. Tell them you want a strong toxics overhaul bill as soon as possible.

While our federal leaders fiddle, we can all be active at the state level. The Toxic Free Kids Act was introduced in the N.C. General Assembly and turned into a study. This legislation would focus on getting toxic “Tris” flame retardants out of our homes while also banning the use of endocrine-disrupting bisphenol A (BPA) and phthalates in children’s products. Let your representatives know you want the study completed and legislation passed. Our children are depending on it.

While we wait for our lawmakers to act, we can take steps at home to reduce exposure to toxics. Here are some important ones:

• Wash your hands frequently to avoid ingesting the pollutants that build up in house dust, such as flame retardants. Plain soap and water is just as effective as anti-microbial soaps and much better for you and the environment.

• Avoid pesticides by eating organic whenever you can.

• Skip the pesticides around your home and garden.

• Avoid plastics, since they leach hormone-mimicking chemicals. Use a glass or stainless steel water bottle, and give your children and grandchildren wooden and cloth toys instead.

• Find lots of simple, money-saving tips to reduce your toxic exposure at ToxicFreeNC.org.

We truly are all in this together.

Tom Vitaglione is senior fellow at NC Child in Raleigh.

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