The Toxic Shell Game

By Michael Green, CEH Executive Director- Crossposted from Huffington Post

My three-year-old daughter Juliette and I have a standing argument. When she wants a sippy cup, I hand her my all-stainless steel, unlined hard-topped mug. But she wants her pink plastic sippy cup, the one with the squishy plastic shell and flexible plastic straw. She often wins, but every time I see her drinking from that cup, I wonder how the chemicals in that plastic might harm her health.

Plastics have revolutionized our lives, but scientists are increasingly finding more about the health costs of our chemical addictions. One chemical used in many plastics, bisphenol A (BPA), has recently been recognized for its potential to cause health problems.

BPA was developed in the 1930’s, about the same time that another synthetic hormone called DES began production. DES was promoted to pregnant women for preventing miscarriages, but after its introduction scientists found that use of the drug resulted in dramatically increased risks of cancer, infertility and other health problems for children of mothers who took DES during pregnancy. By the early 1970’s the drug was finally banned for use as a pregnancy drug.

Like DES, BPA is a chemical that can mimic and alter the body’s natural hormones. Animal studies have linked BPA exposure to impaired sexual development, miscarriages, and other reproductive health hazards. In California we recently won a victory when BPA was banned from baby bottles and sippy cups. Even before the ban, some producers were eliminating BPA from their products. My daughter’s pink sippy cup, for example, was labeled “BPA-free.”

So why would I still worry? Because a recent study showed that many “BPA-Free” products have the same hormone-mimicking properties that they had when made with BPA. In other words, it appears that industry has simply replaced BPA with other unregulated chemicals that may have the same harmful impacts on our children’s health.

This is a toxic shell game that impacts millions of families, a game of chemical sleight-of-hand that puts our children and families at risk from thousands of potentially hazardous and almost completely unregulated substances.

Of course, BPA is just the latest example of this chemical shell game. Health advocates calling for safer standards for flame-retardant chemicals have worked for years to ban the most harmful substances, only to see industry introduce similar, unregulated products as soon as new regulations are enacted. As one health advocate stated, industry simply “moves a few molecules and calls it a new product.”

Many Americans assume that if products are on our store shelves, the government must have evaluated and approved them for safety. But most Americans don’t know that the primary federal regulation to protect us from harmful chemicals, called the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), is more than thirty years old. Even when it was first enacted, TSCA did not apply to more than 60,000 chemicals (including BPA) that were already in use in millions of products on store shelves — these untested substances were “grandfathered” in. New chemicals have also been introduced with virtually no oversight: of the more than 80,000 chemicals in use today, the Environmental Protection Agency has required testing for only 200, and has regulated just 5 of them.

There are certainly good reasons to regulate harmful chemicals like BPA. But as long as industry can continue with their toxic shell game, all of us who deserve healthy products for our children and families will have no way to know if the products we buy are really safe.

That’s why we need to change the rules of the game when it comes to chemical safety. The Safe Chemicals Act has been introduced in Congress to update TSCA. Rather than continuing to rely on regulations developed only years after people are exposed to harmful chemicals, this legislation would require producers to demonstrate that products are safe before they can be marketed. It also would give consumers the right to know what is in the products we buy, and promote innovation of safer chemicals and products, stimulating the economy while creating healthier products.

Doctors take an oath to “First, do no harm.” So it is not surprising that the American Academy of Pediatrics and numerous hospitals, medical schools and leading health care organizations have called for chemical policy reforms like those detailed in the Safe Chemicals Act. It’s not right to continue to expose our children, including my daughter Juliette, to untested chemicals as if they were guinea pigs in the chemical industry’s test labs.