Lawmakers must crack down on toxic chemicals: Guest opinion

As a biomedical researcher, I’m frustrated by lax control of chemicals.

Federal law still allows chemicals to be used in products from toys to pizza boxes without sufficient data on their effects on human health. As a result, new chemicals are introduced into use at a pace far beyond the capacity of public health researchers to study them. Our nation’s outdated chemicals policy is particularly galling when it comes to our children, unwittingly exposed to goods manufactured with potentially harmful chemicals.  

Our society seems to be conducting a poorly designed experiment on our children. We release insufficiently tested chemicals into their living spaces, hoping they will not get into children’s bodies or harm them.  Then we ask our publicly funded scientists to find out what happened.

While not every new chemical is of concern, too often we in the research community find that the chemicals we investigate are associated with serious, harmful consequences. Just as smoking increases the risk of lung cancer, many widely used, commercially available chemicals increase the risk for a range of health problems for developing babies in the womb, infants and children. These health risks include effects on kidneys, livers and hearts, but also risks to intellectual and psychological development – through effects on children’s rapidly developing brains.

Assessing and documenting these effects takes years and costs taxpayer money for each chemical—resources that could be used finding cures to disease if freed up from the urgent task of evaluating chemical risks. So when it becomes clear that a chemical used in everyday products poses a risk to health, we have a moral and a fiscal responsibility to take action as a society.

There is some good news in the form of Sen. Jeff Merkley’s new bill to end the use of several toxic chemicals nationwide. The chemicals listed in the senator’s proposed law are toxic substances that build up in our environment, accumulate in the food chain, and thus concentrate in the human body, including in breast milk. These persistent, bioaccumulative toxic chemicals enter our water, air and food through products as commonplace as carpet, frying pans, cosmetics and furniture. Sen. Merkley is right to insist that we put a swift end to their use.

Sen. Merkley’s bill, however, is only a badly needed stop-gap that allows the EPA to phase out some of the worst chemicals on the market. It doesn’t replace the need for a comprehensive overhaul of our nation’s outdated 1976 Toxic Substances Control Act – a subject that Oregon’s attorney general, Ellen Rosenblum, rightly advocated for in a recent column in the Statesman Journal.

Until we have an effective federal law, Oregon, a leader in environmental health, should take its own action, as Washington and California have. Last year, I joined doctors, parents and environmental experts in a call for state policy to disclose known toxic chemicals in children’s products. I implore our state Legislature to follow Sen. Merkley’s leadership and tackle toxic chemicals in our homes and in our state.