Point of View

Keep, improve household chemical transparency

June 24, 2014 

It’s hard to pick a tipping point. Was it when I became a mother to my boys, now ages 7 and 5? Or while working in the biostatistics department of a clinical research organization before I left my career to stay home full time? No, my concern with toxic chemical exposure began way before that, several decades before BPA became the most-hated abbreviation among parents.

I grew up outside Fort Bragg during a time when many career military members were still talking about Agent Orange exposure during Vietnam. In January 2001, my father, Master Sgt. Felix Lormand (ret), was diagnosed with myelodysplastic syndrome. On March 11, 2001, at the age of 49, he died from acute myelogenous leukemia. After half a decade of paperwork and appeals, Veterans Affairs finally determined his death to be service-connected to his exposure to Agent Orange.

I added new words to my personal dictionary: benzene, 2,4,5-Trichlorophenoxyacetic (2,4,5-T), which was contaminated with 2,3,7,8-Tetrachlorodibenzo-p-dioxin (2,3,7,8- TCDD), and 2,4-Dichlorophenoxyacetic acid (2-4-D).

That experience created an uncomfortable awareness – and savvy avoidance – of environmental toxins. I never put my kids in flame-retardant pajamas because no one could explain why an infant was at greater risk for flammability. My children never smelled like their baby-powdered cohort, because we used unscented, perfume-free soaps. And while I shared the outrage over the pervasive use of BPA in children’s products, I did not share the shock; I had known and complained about it for years.

Both my children have food allergies, but thanks to the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act of 1990 they can eat packaged food without going into anaphylactic shock. As a consumer I can choose to avoid items with food dye, monosodium glutamate and high fructose corn syrup.

However, I don’t have the information I need to look at two couches and pick the one without the extra polybrominated diphenyl ether, a group of chemicals that accumulate in the body in the fatty tissues, blood and breast milk and have been found to damage the developing nervous system, the thyroid and the liver.

I can read detailed safety and chemical information on the thousands of FDA-approved drugs. I can read about every chemical that formulates a dose of Cialis, but I can’t flip over my sofa cushion and read the list of chemicals that make it flame retardant. I don’t have the information I need to make the smart and safe choice. As a parent and a consumer, that’s not OK.

It’s not just being able to avoid a specific chemical. I can’t even make an informed choice. The “current” law – the Toxic Substance Control Act of 1976 – didn’t just fail to require pre-market safety testing of new chemical formulations. It also grandfathered in the chemicals in use prior to its passage.

Eh, what’s the big deal about a few thousand chemicals? A few thousand? Try 84,000 chemicals. Of those, only 200 have had any sort of health and safety tests before appearing on store shelves.

Next month, the U.S. House will vote on the Chemicals in Commerce Act. Disguised as a bill to fix our broken federal regulatory system, it promises to create a “commonsense prioritization and evaluation program for all existing chemicals in commerce and establish a uniform federal standard to help better facilitate interstate commerce in chemicals and other downstream U.S. manufactured goods.”

But a closer look at the language reveals it’s not so promising. If passed, this bill would actually take us backward, failing to protect pregnant women and vulnerable populations from toxic chemicals while preventing states from exercising their freedom to self-regulate and create greater protections for their residents. It may even preempt existing state laws, dismantling state protections that are often stronger than what federal law offers.

That’s why we need to act now, before federal regulations create sweeping rules that would do a huge disservice to North Carolina families and children. North Carolina, already a technology powerhouse, could join 10 other states that are working together to streamline chemical safety data. Those states have already taken steps to gather information on the health effects of chemicals found in everyday, household products – information they need to make proactive policy decisions and that consumers need to make informed choices.

North Carolina can’t wait until after the finalization of dubious federal regulations to protect its residents, especially its children, from potentially toxic chemicals.

Stephanie Lormand is a Raleigh mom of two and a member of MomsRising.org.

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