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Safer Chemicals

The Issue

Safer Chemicals

To date, federal efforts to monitor and regulate chemicals and chemical safety have not been effective. In the United States, there are over 80,000 chemicals in our environment and the Environmental Working Group estimates the number to be closer to 100,000.

The large majority of these have not been tested for safety in human health. Over time, however, there has been mounting evidence linking these chemicals as possible causes of various severe health conditions. Demonstrable links exist between chemical exposure and various types of cancers; reproductive health concerns; infertility; birth defects; neurological conditions (like autism); and chronic diseases such as cardiovascular and pulmonary conditions (Huffling & Leffers, 2016).

According to the Environmental Working Group: “Federal health statutes do not require companies to test products or ingredients for safety before they are sold. As a result, nearly all personal care products contain ingredients that have not been assessed for safety by any accountable agency, and that are not required to meet standards of safety. To protect the health of teens and all Americans, we recommend action.” (EWG, Teen Girls’ Body Burden of Hormone-Altering Cosmetics Chemicals, 2008). 

In addition, a report released in 2019, Plastic & Health: The Hidden Costs of a Plastic Planet, authored by the Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL), Earthworks, Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives (GAIA), Healthy Babies Bright Futures (HBBF), IPEN, Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services (t.e.j.a.s.), University of Exeter, and UPSTREAM, brings together research that exposes the distinct toxic risks plastic poses to human health at every stage of the plastic lifecycle, from extraction of fossil fuels, to consumer use, to disposal and beyond.

To learn more about potential chemical hazards, check out ANHE’s Hazards A-Z: an alphabetical list of hazards and environmental related health impacts with descriptions and links to information. The National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) provides information about chemicals or factors in the environment to which humans are exposed that may cause adverse health effects

Learn About Your Right to Know under the Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act (EPCRA), which requires industry to report on the storage, use and releases of hazardous substances to federal, state, and local governments. 

Read the Cancer Free Economy Network's Joint Statement on Cancer Prevention – A Call for Action to Reduce the Burden of Cancer by Addressing Environmental Risk Factors by cancer and health leaders.

Previous Regulation (20th century)

The Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) of 1976 was enacted under President Jimmy Carter. It has not been an effective law for public health and chemical regulation, in part due to its inclusion of a cost-benefit safety standard. This element prevented the TSCA from banning asbestos. Several bills were introduced in attempts to ameliorate federal regulation of chemical safety. These included the Safe Chemicals Act of April 2011 and the Chemical Safety Improvement Act (2013-2014), but neither of these was enacted. 

The fundamental weaknesses in U.S. chemicals policy are discussed in Toward a New U.S. Chemicals Policy: Rebuilding the Foundation to Advance New Science, Green Chemistry, and Environmental Health (from Environmental Health Perspectives).

Current Regulation

Revision of the TSCA arrived on March 10, 2015, with the introduction of the Frank R. Lautenberg Chemical Safety for the 21st Century Act – S.697 by Senators Udall (D-NM) and Vittner (R-LA). The new Lautenberg Act passed through a bipartisan House-Senate agreement in Congress and was finally signed into law in 2016. According to the Safer Chemicals Healthy Families coalition, the new Lautenberg Act endowed the EPA with more authority to intensify chemical regulation as it relates to human health for those living in the United States. However, the EPA is mandated to address only 30 chemicals within the first 3.5 years following enactment of the legislation.

The revised legislation does explicitly protect vulnerable populations; has judicial deadlines; and requires the EPA to regulate a chemical based only on its health and environmental impacts (unlike the cost-benefit standard of the TSCA). However, the Lautenberg Act still does not present minimum safety and health data requirements for new chemicals; though the EPA is required to present affirmative findings that the chemical is unlikely “to present an unreasonable risk before a company can begin to manufacture” (Leffers & Huffling, 2016).

Therefore, as Leffers and Huffling (2016) state: “While the health and advocacy community did not achieve many of the health protective policies that they had worked to include in TSCA reform, this bill is an improvement over TSCA and the 2016 signing was an historic event.

TSCA Implementation

In accordance with the update law, EPA must effectively implement the strengthened TSCA to protect people from harmful chemicals. There has been industry pressure to weaken TSCA implementation, and nurses can be at the forefront in advocating for strong, health protective regulations. To learn more about how to advocate for protections against harmful chemicals, check out the Environmental Defense Fund’s 10 key components of TSCA implementation.  

ANHE partners with Safer Chemicals, Health Families who has been leading advocacy efforts to ensure the implementation of chemical regulations by EPA are the most health protective in accordance with the intention of the law. Check out their letters and comments to EPA on this issue.

Emerging Contaminants

Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are a group of chemicals that have been linked to a number of human health effects, including low birth weight, immune systems effects, cancer, and thyroid hormone disruption. This group of chemicals don’t break down in the environment which is why they have been termed “forever chemicals”. They can persist and accumulate in the environment and the human body for long periods of time. PFAS can be found in food packaging, household products (such as non-stick pans, cleaning products, water-repellent fabrics), fire-fighting foams, drinking water, and industrial facilities. 

To learn more about PFAS, check out EPA’s per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) webpage and CDC’s PFAS Factsheets.