“Safe Until Proven Dangerous or Deadly” is the attitude that our government has taken toward chemicals. Industries don’t have to prove that a chemical is safe before using it, and harmful chemicals can be in products for years and even decades before their damaging effects begin to draw attention.

The law that assures (or is supposed to assure) that chemicals are safe for people and for the planet is the Toxic Substances Control Act. It’s been on the books since 1976, and it’s done almost nothing to protect Americans from toxic substances. The law has practically no power behind it, and since it’s been on the books, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the agency primarily responsible for regulating chemicals, has analyzed only 200 of the 80,000 chemicals in use, and has banned only 5.

In many cases, the EPA has actually endangered public health by putting corporate profits ahead of the public good. The agency frequently ignores its own rules and allows manufacturers to hide information about the dangers of chemicals and the products that contain them.

As a result, Americans face very real dangers at work and at home. The dangers from chemicals have become so pervasive that babies even risk their health when they drink from their bottles.

Even the womb is not the place of safety that it should be. Tests on newborn babies have found that they have more than 200 different chemicals in their blood. The number of boys being born has been declining, and many boys and older males are less virile than members of previous generations were.

Girls are suffering the opposite problem. Many are reaching puberty long before they should. Some are as young as 5 when they begin to show signs of development, and the situation is common for girls 9 and 10. Something in the environment must be causing these changes because before 1945, 16 was considered normal for the onset of puberty in girls in the United States. Even today, in rural China, girls don’t reach puberty until they’re 17 or older.

Europe uses many of the chemicals that the United States uses, and in 2006 the European Union took a significant step by enacting the The Registration, Evaluation and Authorization of Chemicals (REACH) law, which went into effect in 2007. In Europe, manufacturers and importers must now register their chemicals with the European Chemicals Agency and ensure that they’re safe for the environment and for human health.

REACH is a thoroughly reasonable act, and a similar bill has begun its long journey to becoming law in the United States. The Kid Safe Chemical Act would enact many requirements that seem like nothing more than common sense, such as requiring that industrial chemicals are safe for infants and children, and requiring that new chemicals be tested for safety before being sold.  The Kid Safe Chemical Act is good, but it probably doesn’t go far enough to protect everyone, especially workers in hazardous environments. Still, it’s much better than the TSCA, and the Congress and House should act quickly on it and make it law.

Chemicals do many things to make our lives better, and we have safe alternatives to most of the dangerous ones. No one should suffer or die because chemicals that shouldn’t be on the market are in all kinds of products that we use every day with the assumption that they’re safe.

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Richard Alexander