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Maureen Swanson: Nation's children need meaningful toxic chemical regulation

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- For those of us whose professional or personal concern is for West Virginia children with special needs, the Freedom Industries spill of toxic chemicals into the Elk River raises urgent questions.

Our nation's top scientists and physicians are sounding the alarm regarding the link between toxic chemicals and problems with brain development. The National Academy of Sciences estimates that combinations of environmental factors, including exposure to toxic chemicals, along with genetic susceptibility, cause or contribute to at least 25 percent of learning and developmental disabilities in American children.

We know the names of two chemicals spilled into the Elk River:  4-methylcyclohexane methanol (MCHM) and propylene glycol phenyl ether (PPH). But we don't know what these chemicals can do to developing minds and bodies because under our weak chemical laws there is hardly any data available on them. And this spill isn't an isolated event.

The Elk River empties into the Ohio River. In reporting on the Elk River spill, the New York Times noted that in recent years, the Pittsburgh-based PPG Industries reached settlements with the state of West Virginia over illegally dumping mercury and pesticides into the Ohio River.

We do know what these chemicals can do to developing minds and bodies. Mercury is one of the most profoundly harmful neurotoxic substances in existence. Pesticides are designed to disrupt and destroy a living organism's nervous system.

Congress can address both of these critical public health issues -- the appalling lack of basic information on the vast majority of chemicals, and the ongoing use of known toxic chemicals linked to disease and disability -- by reforming the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA). We need a law that assesses chemicals for safety to human health; identifies chemicals that are toxic; and restricts their use in consumer products and industrial processes.

In particular, any reform of TSCA must especially protect the developing fetus and children from toxic chemical exposures. Scientists have discovered that there are critical "windows" of vulnerability when a pregnant woman's exposures to toxic chemicals can cause lasting harm to a baby's developing brain.

Our country's major medical associations, including the American Academy of Pediatrics, are focusing their concerns with toxic chemicals on these vulnerable populations. In a letter to the U.S. Senate committee considering TSCA reform legislation, they state, "Pregnant women's exposure to harmful chemicals can cross the placenta, and in some cases can accumulate in the fetus, resulting in higher fetal than maternal exposure." 

Will the pregnant women of West Virginia who drank the contaminated water have babies at higher risk of learning and developmental disabilities? We don't know the answer to that question, and quite frankly, we should.

Last week, a House subcommittee on which Rep. David McKinley, R-W.Va., sits introduced a bill called the "Chemicals in Commerce Act."  The bill is an abject failure for public health and safety, as it would hinder testing of chemicals already on the market and make it virtually impossible to gather information and assess new chemicals. Under this bill, it would be extremely unlikely that even the worst and most harmful chemicals - known carcinogens and neurotoxicants - could ever be restricted from use.

Likewise, the bill before the U.S. Senate, called the Chemical Safety Improvement Act, is so deeply flawed that as drafted, it would have done nothing to require prior scrutiny or better information and management of the chemicals in the Elk River spill.

We urgently need Congress to adopt meaningful legislation that will protect the health of future generations from toxic chemicals. But the bills currently under consideration just don't cut it. Let's hope our lawmakers listen to America's doctors and nurses, look to the chemical catastrophe in West Virginia, and give American families a chemical safety law that really works.

Swanson, of Pittsburgh, is Healthy Children Project director for the Learning Disabilities Association of America.


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