To date, federal efforts to monitor and regulate chemicals and chemical safety have not been effective. In the United States, there are over 80,000 chemicals in our environment and the Environmental Working Group estimates the number to be closer to 100,000.
The large majority of these have not been tested for safety in human health. Over time, however, there has been mounting evidence linking these chemicals as possible causes of various severe health conditions. Demonstrable links exist between chemical exposure and various types of cancers; reproductive health concerns; infertility; birth defects; neurological conditions (like autism); and chronic diseases such as cardiovascular and pulmonary conditions (Huffling & Leffers, 2016).
According to the Environmental Working Group: “Federal health statutes do not require companies to test products or ingredients for safety before they are sold. As a result, nearly all personal care products contain ingredients that have not been assessed for safety by any accountable agency, and that are not required to meet standards of safety. To protect the health of teens and all Americans, we recommend action.” (EWG, Teen Girls’ Body Burden of Hormone-Altering Cosmetics Chemicals, 2008).
In addition, a report released in 2019, Plastic & Health: The Hidden Costs of a Plastic Planet, authored by the Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL), Earthworks, Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives (GAIA), Healthy Babies Bright Futures (HBBF), IPEN, Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services (t.e.j.a.s.), University of Exeter, and UPSTREAM, brings together research that exposes the distinct toxic risks plastic poses to human health at every stage of the plastic lifecycle, from extraction of fossil fuels, to consumer use, to disposal and beyond.
Previous Regulation (20th century)
- Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) of 1976: This legislation was enacted under President Jimmy Carter. It has not been an effective law for public health and chemical regulation, in part due to its inclusion of a cost-benefit safety standard. This element prevented the TSCA from banning asbestos.
- Several bills were introduced in attempts to ameliorate federal regulation of chemical safety. These included the Safe Chemicals Act of April 2011 and the Chemical Safety Improvement Act (2013-2014), but neither of these was enacted.
Revision of the TSCA arrived on March 10, 2015, with the introduction of the Frank R. Lautenberg Chemical Safety for the 21st Century Act – S.697 by Senators Udall (D-NM) and Vittner (R-LA). The new Lautenberg Act passed through a bipartisan House-Senate agreement in Congress and was finally signed into law by President Barack Obama on June 22nd, 2016. According to the Safer Chemicals Healthy Families coalition, the new Lautenberg Act endowed the EPA with more authority to intensify chemical regulation as it relates to human health for those living in the United States. However, the EPA is mandated to address only 30 chemicals within the first 3.5 years following enactment of the legislation.
The revised legislation does explicitly protect vulnerable populations; has judicial deadlines; and requires the EPA to regulate a chemical based only on its health and environmental impacts (unlike the cost-benefit standard of the TSCA). However, the Lautenberg Act still does not present minimum safety and health data requirements for new chemicals; though the EPA is required to present affirmative findings that the chemical is unlikely “to present an unreasonable risk before a company can begin to manufacture” (Leffers & Huffling, 2016).
Therefore, as Leffers and Huffling (2016) state: “While the health and advocacy community did not achieve many of the health protective policies that they had worked to include in TSCA reform, this bill is an improvement over TSCA and the June 22, 2016 signing was an historic event.
What can we expect in the foreseeable future?
The current U.S. political climate is one threatening to the overall vitality of the environmental health advocacy movement, both as it stands independently and as it relates to individual and community health and well-being.
The 45th President of the United States, Donald J. Trump, chose Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt to become the 14th Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency. Mr. Pruitt has formed an alliance with some of the country’s top energy producers and has strong allies in members of the fossil fuel industry.
As Attorney General, Mr. Pruitt created a “federalism unit” in his office that aimed to fight President Obama’s healthcare law and environmental regulations; he denies the realities of climate change; and he negated EPA policy by denying that carbon dioxide is a primary contributor to global warming.
President Trump has threatened to dismantle the Environmental Protection Agency multiple times during his campaign. President Trump’s administration could weaken or repeal Obama’s legislation regarding greenhouse gas emissions as well as other environmental regulation that regulate toxic chemicals. For more information, check out this interactive graphic from The New York Times: How Trump Can Influence Climate Change (Lee & Pearce, December 2016) and 8 Reasons Why Scott Pruitt Should Not Head the EPA
- Communicate with representatives, at the local, state, and national levels. Write letters and make phone calls to your representatives expressing your concerns and belief in the priority of environmental health. Sign up for the ANHE Newsletter to the left and we’ll let you know of opportunities to write policymakers and help with the letter
- Participate in local movements and activities that support the environmental health of your community. Examples include: community clean-up events; fitness events for all ages; and healthy nutrition classes.
- Join the ANHE Policy-Advocacy Work Group – it’s free to join.
- ANHE E-Textbook: Environmental Health in Nursing – See Unit 8
- Healthy People 2020 – Environmental Health
- World Health Organization – Public Health, Environmental, and Social Determinants of Health
- EPA – Learn About Your Right to Know
- Toward a New U.S. Chemicals Policy: Rebuilding the Foundation to Advance New Science, Green Chemistry, and Environmental Health (from Environmental Health Perspectives)
- National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences – Environmental Agents