It has a way to go before it may become a law, but a bill called “The Endocrine-Disrupting Chemicals Exposure Elimination Act of 2011” could indicate some forward motion on banning chemicals that threaten human health. This bill could change the regulation of chemicals by empowering researchers to act against the most harmful chemicals in use today.
As of July 13, 2011, this bill was referred to the Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions. In the past, regulatory agencies have moved at a snail’s pace to ban chemicals. In 1996, Congress gave the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) the responsibility to create a system for the screening of endocrine-disrupting chemicals. By 2009, however, the EPA had not screened even one of those chemicals for endocrine-disrupting effects.
DDT, a chemical from our not-too-distant past, was pivotal in launching research into endocrine-disrupting chemicals when biologists noticed unusual reproductive problems in wildlife populations. DDT accumulated at higher concentrations up the food chain and made the bald eagle almost extinct, since DDT affected their ability to produce healthy offspring. DDT was banned in the 1970s, but in the 1940s and the years leading up to its ban, it was touted as safe—to the point of ads showing it being sprayed around the house and even on the family dog.
DDT is not the only chemical player in this game, though. In the past 50 years or so, pesticide and other chemical use has increased 33-fold. Each year, over one billion tons of pesticides alone are used in the U.S. and thousands of chemicals registered with the EPA find their way into our food and water. Pesticides and other chemicals don’t stay just where they’re applied, however. For example, Cornell entomologist David Pimentel says that only 0.1 percent of applied pesticides reach the target pests, leaving the bulk of the pesticides (99.9 percent) to impact us and our environment.
It’s showing up, too. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says the average American child ages 6 to 11 carries four times the acceptable levels of pesticides called organophosphates, which are known neurotoxins. These kids aren’t alone. A 2004 CDC analysis revealed that 100 percent of blood and urine tests from all subjects monitored showed pesticide residues. It would be one thing if this was working, but more of the U.S. food supply is lost to pests today (37 percent) than in the 1940s. Total crop losses from insect damage alone have nearly doubled from 7 percent to 13 percent.
The concern from scientists is that what happened with DDT and the bald eagle is now happening with other chemicals and human health, including effects like autism, ADD, learning disability and obesity. If this bill becomes law, then scientists can ban 10 chemicals per year for 10 years—not enough to get rid of all of them, but it’s a start.
Among other scientists and doctors, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, in his Toxic America investigation, has uncovered the health effects of chemicals and other pollutants in our environment, many of which are found in everyday products like detergents, foods and cosmetics. Gupta says that out of nearly 80,000 chemicals in commerce, only about 200 have been tested, and only five have been restricted. Gupta says that he always thought that watchdog groups and the government evaluated and approved the safety of chemicals that intersect our lives, but he learned that wasn’t true. In the U.S., chemicals are innocent until proven guilty, which means by observing ill health effects in people who have been exposed, often years later.
That, Gupta says, makes us all guinea pigs.
Gupta also offers possible solutions for evaluating chemicals. In the European Union, for example, the burden of showing a chemical is safe is not on regulators, it’s on the producers of chemicals. Gupta says this prompts citizens there to know more about what’s in the food they eat, the water they drink and the air they breathe. He also believes a move in this direction can spark healthier innovations and create fewer hazardous chemicals.
The truth is that chemicals, including pesticides, are poisons that can cause infertility, birth defects, nervous system damage and cancer, so avoid them. This bill may or may not become law and won’t do away with all threatening chemicals even if it were enacted today. Nevertheless, you have the opportunity to crack down on some of these chemicals by your own choices, including eating organic. Over 3,000 high-risk toxins, including pesticides, are excluded from organic foods.
That’s a chemical crackdown we all can participate in, whether or not this bill becomes law.