April 25, 2011

Pediatricians Want Better Regulations For Toxic Chemicals

The 35-year-old federal law governing toxic chemicals in the environment is not enough to protect kids and pregnant women from toxic chemicals --they need an overhaul, says a policy statement from the American Academy of Pediatrics.

"It is widely recognized to have been ineffective in protecting children, pregnant women and the general population from hazardous chemicals in the marketplace," the academy states in a policy statement that will published in the May issue of the journal Pediatrics.

Changes to the Toxic Substance Control Act have been sought by groups such as The American Medical Association, the American Public Health Association and the American Nurses Association.

Dr. Jerome Paulson, who is part of the AAP's Council on Environmental Health and lead author of the statement, says that the consequences of dangerous chemicals hit kids the hardest, and in unpredictable ways.

Kids are especially vulnerable during important developmental periods when the brain and body are changing rapidly, he says.

"Children are not little adults," Paulson told Reuters. "Their bodies are different and their behaviors are different. That means that their exposures to chemicals in the environment are different, and the way their bodies (break down) those chemicals are different."

There is a higher risk of exposure for children since they eat, drink and breathe more pound for pound than adults, and they spend more time on the floor or the ground than adults, which is a possible source of exposure, points out the American Academy of Pediatrics in its policy statement.

Children's advocates say that the recent rise in early puberty in girls and a variety of other chronic diseases that include autism, allergies, asthma and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) could be caused by exposures to these toxins.

Ken Cook, president of the Environmental Working Group, told USA Today, "When the nation's pediatricians sound the alarm, it's time to act."

These are the doctors who see and treat more and more children with autism, ADHD, cancer and other serious health problems that are on the rise."

A growing body of evidence shows that children face real harm from chemicals in their homes, schools and communities, Janssen says.

Last week, three studies found that children exposed to the highest levels of pesticides before birth had lower IQ scores than other kids.

In another study, boys who were exposed before birth to the highest levels of phthalates "” chemicals widely used in plastic "” were more likely to be born with anatomical defects such as undescended testes, reports USA Today.

The Environmental Working Group's study found that babies are born "pre-polluted" with more than 200 chemicals that include flame retardants, lead and pesticides which have been banned 30 years ago, says pediatrician Alan Greene, who participated in that research.

Fertility can also be affected by exposure to toxic chemicals, the pediatricians' organization notes. A study found that women who were exposed to high levels of polybrominated diphenyl ether, a flame retardant, took significantly longer to get pregnant.

The goal of the report is to voice not only the concerns of pediatricians in current discussions about the needed updates to the Act, but to advocate for those who cannot defend themselves.

"Kids don't vote," says Dr. Paulson.

The Toxic Substances Control Act hasn't been updated since 1976, Paulson says.

Only five chemicals or types of chemicals have been regulated by the law since it came into effect, writes Paulson.

Pediatrician Harvey Karp told USA Today's Liz Szabo that law treats chemicals as "innocent until proven guilty," which puts the burden on the government to prove something is harmful. Karp is a longtime environmental advocate who was not involved in the new policy.

Sarah Janssen who is the senior scientist with the Natural Resources Defense Council says that the current law is so weak that the Environmental Protection Agency wasn't even able to use it to ban asbestos.

Although the law requires companies to notify the EPA about new chemicals, they are not required to test chemicals for safety.

According to the Government Accountability Office, only about 15% of these notifications include health or safety test data.

Janssen says that only 12 out of the top 3,000 chemicals produced in the U.S. have been "adequately tested for their effects on the developing brain.

"Right now, a company manufactures a chemical and puts it out on the market and reaps the economic reward," says Paulson. "And then the public is responsible for trying to figure out if there is any harm associated with the use of that chemical. And then it's almost a criminal procedure, requiring proof beyond a reasonable doubt."

The Safe Chemicals Act of 2011 was introduced by Democratic Sen. Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey this month. The law requires chemical manufacturers to demonstrate the safety of industrial chemicals used in everyday household products.

The American Chemical Council acknowledges that the 1976 act needs to be updated.

"We agree that the Toxic Substances Control Act needs to be modernized to further ensure the safe use of chemicals and the innovation of new products," Scott Jensen of the American Chemical Council wrote in a statement to CNN.

"Chemicals should be safe for their intended use and potential risks faced by children should be an important factor in safe use determinations," he adds.

There is hope for changes to the regulations this time because the chemical industry supports changing the law.

Kelly Semrau of SC Johnson, maker of Raid and Windex, says that updating the law makes good business sense because it will give consumers more confidence in purchases.

"Chemically formulated products can be found under nearly every kitchen sink in America, and it is important that the regulation of these products is up to date," she says.


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