How to Keep Your Family Safe from Toxic Chemicals

How We Got There

Why are such potentially dangerous chemicals allowed in so many household products in the first place? "You can't put a new car on the market without extensive crash testing first, but there aren't any similar precautions in place for chemicals," explains Rick Smith, executive director of Environmental Defence Canada and coauthor of Slow Death by Rubber Duck. When used as industrial chemicals, EDCs are regulated by the much-maligned Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976, which doesn't require that they be tested or proven safe before being used. Instead, it's up to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to show that a chemical is unsafe -- that it poses an "unreasonable risk" -- before it can regulate or ban that chemical. "The bar is set so high that the EPA can essentially never meet it, and therefore dangerous chemicals are in all sorts of products," says Dr. Denison. Congress's original rationale for giving a pass to industrial chemicals like BPA, he explains, is that they weren't designed to be biologically active or get into our body in the same way pesticides or drugs would, and wouldn't pose the same risks. "Now we know that was naive. We should presume these chemicals could be a problem until their producers can prove otherwise," he says.

Some canned-goods manufacturers, such as General Mills (which makes Muir Glen Organic Tomatoes) and Heinz, are responding to consumer concerns. They're reformulating some of their products to be BPA-free or are planning to line their cans with safer chemicals (which they haven't yet identified). But public-health officials worry that until better procedures are in place to regulate claims like "BPA-free," consumers can't be assured seeing this term on a label means a product is safe. (Experts predict the next hallmark of safety may be products marketed as "EA-free," for estrogenic activity.) "At this point it's still better to choose items that are BPA-free," says Dr. Woodruff.

Meanwhile, some experts continue to believe that the EDC levels found in biomonitoring studies are too low to be a cause for concern. "It's the amount of any given chemical, not its presence or absence, that determines its potential for harm," says Carl Winter, Ph.D., a toxicologist and director of the FoodSafe Program at the University of California, Davis, as well as the scientific spokesperson for a trade group called the Institute of Food Technologists. Still, consider a 2005 study conducted at Carnegie Mellon University, in Pittsburgh, which found that mice exposed to BPA in utero at a level of just 25 parts per trillion experienced double the amount of milk-duct growth as mice with no BPA exposure. That alone would lead you to believe that even the tiniest amount could affect your body.

"Finding any synthetic chemical in a person's body should be a big red flag that we need to really study that chemical," says Gina Solomon, M.D., a senior scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council. The American Medical Association issued a statement last fall calling for the government to increase regulation of EDCs in consumer products. And certain EDCs are banned in multiple states and cities, including Connecticut, Maryland, Michigan, Washington, and Wisconsin, Chicago, and New York's Suffolk County. Suffolk County, for instance, issues a $500 fine to stores that sell baby bottles or sippy cups that are made with BPA.

In April, Senator Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) and Congressman Henry Waxman (D-CA) introduced Senate and House versions of the Safe Chemicals Act of 2010, which would overhaul the Toxic Substances Control Act. Under this new law, manufacturers would have to demonstrate that new chemicals are safe before they can put them on the market, and all existing chemicals would have to be assessed for safety over the next five to 15 years. The Obama administration has signaled that it will support the bill. And in April, a panel that advises the president on cancer issued a 200-plus-page report calling for all levels of government "to protect every American from needless disease through rigorous regulation of environmental pollutants," including BPA. "We expect the chemical industry to fight reform tooth and nail, but there's broad bipartisan support for more regulation because nobody in his right mind supports exposing kids to toxins," says Smith.

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