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Pediatricians Urge Better Protection From Chemicals

MONDAY April 25, 2011 -- The U.S. chemical management policy needs an overhaul because it does not adequately protect children and pregnant women, who are most susceptible to hazardous substances, a new position paper from the American Academy of Pediatrics claims.

Since passage of the Toxic Substance Control Act (TSCA) in 1976, tens of thousands of new chemicals have been developed for widespread use with little or no oversight or testing and the law itself has never been really updated, the pediatricians claim.

"The current policy . . . really is virtually useless," said Dr. Jerome Paulson, the paper's author and medical director of the Child Health Advocacy Institute at Children's National Medical Center in Washington, D.C.

The recent outcry about substances such as Bisphenol A, a chemical used for decades in plastic drinking bottles that may trigger neurological problems in children, exemplifies the policy's inability to take vulnerable populations into consideration, Paulson noted.

"In the last couple of years we've had a 'toxicant of the month' situation," he said. "Why aren't these chemicals tested before they're in the market so we . . . can know if they're unlikely to do harm to the environment or to human beings?"

The position paper is published online April 25 ahead of print in the May issue of the journal Pediatrics.

Under the TSCA, companies must disclose any known hazards of chemicals used to make consumer products, but unlike drug companies, they are not required to perform pre-market testing, or even post-market followup. Paulson and others said the system works as a disincentive for companies to learn more about the chemicals because any problems found would need to be remedied at a company's expense.

"There's no minimum data requirement. It rewards ignorance, really," said Dr. Megan Schwarzman, a research scientist at University of California-Berkeley's School of Public Health.

"People think there's some general oversight of chemicals in the products and whether they're safe -- and that's not the case," Schwarzman added. "We need to switch the burden of proof, so manufacturers have proven safety and efficacy of their products before they're marketed."

Among the changes called for by the AAP:

  • Manufacturers should be responsible for developing information about chemicals before marketing.
  • The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) should have the authority to demand additional safety data about a chemical and to limit or stop its marketing when a high degree of suspicion about safety exists.
  • The federal government should provide funding to evaluate the effects of chemicals on children's health. Research should include effects on reproduction and development.

Paulson said that proving a chemical is harmful beyond any reasonable doubt is "too high a standard when you're worried about safety and health . . . and so there should be a reasonable standard we can all agree on that only requires some evidence of harm or potential for harm."

An EPA spokesperson could not be reached for comment.

More than 80,000 chemicals are used in commerce in the United States, according to the paper, about 3,000 of which are considered as "high-production volume" because they are imported into the country in quantities of one million pounds or more each year. About 27 trillion pounds of chemicals were produced or imported into the United States a year in the early part of this decade, according to an EPA document.

Yet in the past 35 years, since the law was enacted, the TSCA has been used to regulate only five hazardous chemicals, including asbestos, dioxin and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs).

"The TSCA is so ineffective that it took a separate act of Congress to amend the TSCA so that the EPA could regulate asbestos, one of the most dangerous toxic substances," the policy statement said.

Recent health concerns have surfaced over substances such as flame retardants, used in products from crib mattresses to child car seats and linked to fertility and thyroid hormone problems, and volatile organic compounds (VOCs), found in paints and glues and associated with dizziness, visual disorders and impaired memory.

"Many substances we identify as potentially harmful to children mainly because of their developmental effects," Schwarzman said. "There is increasing science on the childhood, and even potentially lifelong, effects during these critical windows of time and during pregnancy."

Paulson noted that children and pregnant women can't be used in experiments to gauge chemical safety, but that animal testing and some human cell culture tests can indicate toxicity in these groups.

Schwarzman is optimistic that increasing attention to this issue will encourage Congress, which has jurisdiction over the TSCA, to push through legislative changes despite conflicts with manufacturers.

"Of course, there's going to be resistance to changing it, because anything we do to change it is going to cost companies money," she said. "But the cost of doing nothing is high."

More information

The March of Dimes talks about hazardous chemicals and pregnancy.

Posted: April 2011


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