A new study claims the United States could significantly reduce its rates of chronic illnesses -- and potentially its high health care costs -- by reforming its antiquated chemical safety laws.
The report released Thursday by the Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families coalition highlighted six health issues the organization says are on the rise because of exposure to toxins, such as leukemia, breast cancer, asthma, fertility problems, birth defects in males, and autism.
The report claimed the U.S. could save an estimated $5 billion in health care costs if it reduced the number of these illnesses by just one tenth of one percent, via revamping the country's Toxic Substances Control Act, the key federal law governing chemical safety.
"Chemical policy reforms hold the promise of reducing the economic, social, and personal costs of chronic disease by creating a more healthy future for all Americans," the report stated. "The Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families coalition believes that, by reforming TSCA, we can reduce our exposure to toxic chemicals, improve our nation's health, and lower the cost of health care."
Congress enacted the TSCA in 1976, but it hasn't made any significant amendments to the law since then. Scientists, medical experts, environmental advocates, and other safety experts say the law doesnt give Americans adequate protection from toxic chemicals.
Some problems with the TSCA include:
• The TSCA gives a "free pass" to all chemicals in existence before 1976, the report states. Those chemicals are not required to undergo any safety testing.
• Under the TSCA, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) can only require safety tests on 200 of the more than 80,000 chemicals used in the country.
• Some 60,000 other chemicals, including the toxin bisphenol A (BPA) linked in animal studies to infertility, behavioral changes, breast cancer and other health issues, are grandfathered in the TSCA and not subject to mandatory safety tests.
Since Congress approved the TSCA, the report found, thousands of peer-reviewed scientific studies have uncovered "a large body of evidence" that shows exposure to chemicals is linked to many serious health problems.
"Scientific evidence is piling up, revealing how chemicals are contributing to the alarming increases we are seeing in childhood leukemia, learning disabilities, reproductive disorders and other health problems," said Charlotte Brody, RN, National Field Director of the Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families coalition and lead author of the report. "But meanwhile the federal law that is supposed to protect us has stayed frozen in time."
Other health care professionals agree Congress must act now to reform the country's obsolete chemical safety laws. They say the health and welfare of all Americans, especially children, is at stake.
"[The] failure of [the] TSCA has direct implications for the health of America's children," said Philip J. Landrigan, MD, Pediatrician and Director, Children's Environmental Health Center, Mount Sinai School of Medicine. "Infants and children are uniquely vulnerable to toxic industrial chemicals. Research from the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) documents show that several hundred industrial chemicals are in all of us. Some of these chemicals are known to cause asthma, cancer, learning disabilities and birth defects.
"But for too many of the chemicals that are in us, no toxicity testing has ever been done," he added. "For too many of the industrial chemicals that are in us we have no idea of their potential toxicity to our children. This is very unwise and terribly short-sighted. Failure of TSCA is cause for great concern not only for the health of our children, but also for the future of our nation."
Legislation to toughen the TSCA is expected to be introduced in early 2010 by Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) and Rep. Bobby Rush (D-IL).
"The use of chemicals is pervasive in our modern society and, when properly tested and used, they improve the quality of life for families here and throughout the world," said Rush, chairman of the Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Commerce, Trade and Consumer Protection. "But just because chemicals have value, does not mean they are always beneficial to our health, particularly the health and maturation of young children and those whose health has already been compromised."
"As we work to reform [the] TSCA, I will continue to vigorously prod industry to seek out and invest in the development of safer, more viable alternatives to hazardous chemicals and substances," he added.
Six problems on the rise
Thursday's report, "The Health Case for Reforming the Toxic Substances Control Act," documented six health issues that scientific studies have shown are on the rise because of exposure to chemicals.
According to the report, those conditions are:
• Leukemia, brain cancer, and other childhood cancers, which have increased by more than 20 percent since 1975. Many studies have linked cancer with chemicals used in the workplace, including asbestos, chromium, and vinyl chloride. An Arizona study found that 25 percent of homes contain formaldehyde at higher than recommended levels. Formaldehyde is also used in furniture, countertops, insulation, wallpaper, nail polish, dishwashing liquid and other consumer products.
• Breast cancer, which the study said increased more than 40 percent between 1973 and 1998. Studies have linked early exposure to the pesticide DDT with later development of breast cancer. Other studies have linked BPA to breast cancer. "In laboratory studies bisphenol A is one of the chemicals that has also been shown to cause normal breast tissue to express genes associated with a highly aggressive, and often fatal, form of breast cancer," the report said. Breast cancer rates have declined since 2003, the report noted, but a woman's lifetime risk of breast cancer is now one in eight. That's up from one in ten in 1973.
• Asthma, which the report said nearly doubled between 1980 and 1995. In 2008, more than 38 million people in the country had experienced asthma at some point in their lives. According to the report, hundreds of chemicals can cause asthma in people previously free of the disease or place asthma patients at great risk. Those chemicals include formaldehyde and the phthalates DEHP and BBZP, which are used in vinyl flooring, carpet tiles, and PVC plastic.
• Fertility and reproductive issues, which the report said affected 40 percent more women in 2002 than in 1982. Prenatal exposure to low levels of perfluorinated chemicals, which are used in stick-free and stain-proof products, was linked to low birth weight and body mass in newborns. Studies have also linked cadmium, a metal used in batteries, to reduced sperm motility and gynecological disorders. "No chemicals are currently regulated under TSCA because of their potential to harm reproduction or development," the report said. "But other authoritative bodies have listed more than 50 industrial chemicals as reproductive toxins."
• Birth defects causing undescended testicles increased 200 percent between 1970 and 1993, the report said. Many studies have linked BPA, phthalates, and cadmium to this and other reproductive issues. Studies have also shown these chemicals act as endocrine disruptors, which interfere with normal hormone function. The report also noted that exposure to these chemicals caused similar reproductive issues in birds, fish, mammals, and reptiles.
• Learning and developmental disabilities, including intellectual disability, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and autism, are on the rise, the report stated.
"Almost 1 percent of 8-year-old children are diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder, a 10-fold increase over just a 15-year-period," the report said. Studies have linked lead, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), arsenic, methyl-mercury, and toluene, to these and other neurodevelopmental disorders. 133 million people, or more than half of all Americans, now live with these and other chronic illnesses, according to Thursday's report.
"Estimates of the proportion of the disease burden that can be attributed to chemicals vary widely, ranging from 1 percent of all disease to 5 percent of children cancer to 10 percent of diabetes, Parkinson's disease, and neurodevelopmental deficits, to 30 percent of childhood asthma," the report said. "Whatever the actual contribution, effective chemical policy reform will incorporate the last 30 years of science to reduce the chemical exposure that contribute to the rising incidence of chronic disease."
"Holding back economic growth"
Studies show the United States now spends more than $7,000 per person every year on health care.
In 2008, the direct medical costs associated with cancer were $93.2 billion. The annual price tag for Alzheimer's care was a staggering $150 billion. And the Projected National Health Expenditure for 2020 is a whopping $5000 billion dollars.
"Even if chemical policy reform leads to reductions in toxic chemical exposures that translate into just one-tenth of one percent reduction of health care costs, it would save the U.S. health care system an estimated $5 billion every year," the report stated.
The head of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has also called for tougher chemical safety laws, saying such action would cut the country's health care bill. She also suggested such a move could boost the country's ailing economy.
"The poor who get sick because of toxins in their neighborhoods are the same people who typically seek treatment in emergency rooms," EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson told the American Public Health Association last November. "That drives up health care costs fore everyone. And environmental health issues hold back economic growth. Let me repeat that, because there are a lot of people who think we can't address these issues and strengthen our economy."
"In fact, we must address these issues to strengthen our economy," Jackson added. "Environmental health issues hold back economic growth."
The Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families coalition said Congress must immediately revamp the Toxic Substances Control Act.
"Chemical exposure is a factor we can do something about," the coalition's report states. "In simplest terms, real reform will lead to more healthy babies, fewer women with breast cancer, a return to normal fertility patterns, and lower numbers of people with Alzheimer's disease. That is the promise of TSCA reform."
Study: Better Chemical Safety Laws Could Reduce Chronic Disease...