Toxic Chemicals in Our Great Lakes - Tuesday, August 6, 2013
I have always felt a strong connection to the Great Lakes. My family and I have spent many years biking the 14 miles of scenic trail along Presque Isle, fishing Lake Erie, and enjoying the beach and surrounding natural landscape. And we’re not alone. Nearly four million people visit Presque Isle State Park, a National Natural Landmark each year. One of my proudest professional accomplishments was the conservation of a 540 acre tract, now known as Erie Bluffs State Park that boasts over one mile of Lake Erie’s shoreline and 90 foot bluffs. This property had great potential for development. However, such disturbance of this fragile ecosystem would threaten the flora and fauna of the lake and its unique natural surroundings.
Fortunately there was much support to protect this treasure, which is home to 80 species of birds; 19 mammals; four species of bats; more than 300 plants; 94 species of fungi; almost 500 land-dwelling insects; land and aquatic snails; and more than a dozen species of reptiles and amphibians. When you conserve such endangered and threatened habitat, you in turn protect this vast freshwater system. Unfortunately, in addition to development, scientific studies have shown that other human impacts continue to threaten our Great Lakes, including Lake Erie. Our waste-water treatment facilities can't filter out many toxic chemicals and emerging contaminants like toxic flame retardants and hormone-disruptors found in products we use every day. Human health and the health of the Great Lakes is intimately connected.
That's why Women for a Healthy Environment has teamed up with dozens of other Great Lakes organizations and the "Mind the Store" campaign to ask the nation’s top ten retailers to protect these valuable resources from toxic chemicals. We thank our PA colleagues including David Dausey, PhD, FACE, Dean, School of Health Professions and Public Health at Mercyhurst University and the Lake Erie Region Conservancy for joining this campaign.
We are asking the retailers to make a plan to get the worst chemicals out of their products and off the shelves. We've learned that the chemicals that are in our products end up in our homes and then in the environment. Our friends at the Ecology Center have prepared a new fact sheet highlighting some of the new science around toxic chemical pollutants in the Great Lakes, including the “Persistent, Bioaccumulative, Toxic (PBTs)” chemicals that have been identified in Lake Erie and stay in the environment, to “emerging contaminants” like Triclosan, which are rapidly rising as Great Lakes pollutants.
Toxic chemicals have a variety of routes they travel: some are released directly from manufacturing sites or creep their way out of landfills into the ground water, rivers and lakes, while others are the result of legacy pollution from days past. The Ecology Center has mapped out where the Hazardous 100+ chemicals have been found in the Great Lakes Areas of Concern to illustrate this legacy of pollution.
Some of the highlights from the Great Lakes fact sheet:
· A 2009 report on Chemicals of Emerging Concern, identifies a list of emerging chemicals that pose a threat to the Great Lakes. Most of the chemicals identified by the scientific panel are on the Hazardous 100+ list.
· After testing fish in the Great Lakes for toxic flame retardants (PBDEs), scientists found that levels of these flame retardants rose quickly during the 1980s, and the levels doubled in fish over a short span of three years.
· Triclosan, commonly used in antibacterial soaps, hand sanitizer and other consumer products has been detected as a Great Lakes contaminant.
· Great Lakes trout have been found to contain perflurochemical surfactants.
For more information on chemicals in our consumer products and the Great Lakes, you can read the full fact sheet here.
The point remains: our health, environment, water quality, fish, birds and air are all worth protecting. We need stronger federal laws on toxic chemicals, and we also need retailers to play a major role in moving the market away from toxic chemicals commonly used in consumer products. Please join us and share this important information on Facebook and Twitter.
Don’t forget to take action, we’re asking retailers to play a leadership role in the fight against toxic chemicals. When you weigh in, they respond.
A Step in The Right (and Left) Direction for Chemical Reform - Thursday, August 1, 2013
Yesterday was a historic moment. For the first time in over 35 years there was true bi-partisan discussion on how to repair an antiquated, broken federal system. I reference the US Senate’s Environment and Public Works (EPW) Committee hearing on “Strengthening Public Health Protections by Addressing Toxic Chemical Threats” on Wednesday, July 31, 2013. This hearing was a deep dive into the many problems with our current laws on toxic chemicals. Since the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) was passed in 1976 over 85,000 chemicals have been introduced in commerce, 200 reviewed by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and only five regulated. Statistics often speak for themselves. Many of the chemicals found in consumer products have never been assessed for safety by any publically accountable agency. And many of these chemicals are increasingly linked to negative health effects including cancer, neurodevelopmental disabilities, and reproductive harm.
There is agreement across many sectors including environment and public health organizations, faith-based sectors, the chemical industry, as well as consumers to take action on reforming TSCA. Clearly this law is failing to protect public health, our communities and the environment. Currently, EPA rather than chemical manufacturers bears the burden of proving a chemical is harmful. For this reason we still have products available that contain known carcinogens, including asbestos and formaldehyde.
The EPW Committee hearing opened with accolades and memorials to the late Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) who wanted his legacy to be toxic chemical reform. Senators indicated it was their wish to honor the Senator’s years of dedication to this issue. Shorty before Senator Lautenberg passed away, he and Senator David Vitter (R-LA) introduced the Chemical Safety Improvement Act (CSIA). Wednesday’s hearing was a deep dive into the many problems with our current laws on toxic chemicals. Senators from both sides of the aisle underscored the need to reform TSCA and willingness to work together, a refreshing change from the status quo in Washington. This represented a monumental step forward in Congress. Currently, twenty senators from have co-sponsored the bill including Sen. Pat Toomey (R-PA).
The introduction of the CSIA is a great start to opening the dialogue amongst all interested parties. One thing that was clear from the hearing is that the CSIA needs to be fixed in some core ways to adequately protect public health from toxic chemicals. There are fundamental principles that both sides of the aisle must agree to in order to make federal chemical reform a reality. They are as follows:
1) Ensure adequate protections for vulnerable populations, including pregnant women, children and hot spot communities. Children are particularly vulnerable to harm from toxic chemical exposures. Not only are children more at risk, they are also often more highly exposed to toxic chemicals. Per pound of body weight, children eat more food, drink more fluids and breathe more air than adults.
2) Preserve the authority of state governments to act on toxic chemicals. Ten state Attorney Generals submitted a letter to the EPW Committee expressing their concern with language in the CSIA that could prevent states from acting to address potential risks of toxic substances and from exercising state enforcement powers.
3) Require adequate data on chemical safety, so the EPA can properly prioritize chemicals.
4) Include deadlines and timetables to ensure the EPA is meeting appropriate benchmarks.
5) Remove red tape on the EPA before restricting the use of dangerous chemicals (learning from the lessons of existing TSCA and asbestos).
We were pleasantly surprised by the bi-partisan spirit of the hearing. Congressional hearings can easily break down into a political food fight and this hearing failed to do that. Members of both the Democratic and Republican parties seemed willing to work together on a solution for reforming TSCA. We look forward to a day when consumers no longer have to play detective before purchasing a product from the store shelf.
These discussions left us encouraged, enthused and hopeful that true progress can be made to better protect our health and environment. We joined our colleagues, and even a few celebrities, and tweeted about remarks from the hearing’s panel members. The hashtag saferchemicals was trending in the top 2 spot, only behind the “promoted” Smurfs 2. Hopefully those Smurfs 2 toys and figurines won’t need to be recalled due to the presence of toxic chemicals that could harm our children.
Michelle Naccarati-Chapkis is Executive Director of Women for a Healthy Environment located in Pittsburgh. The organization is dedicated to providing educational programming to the general public on environmental health issues and supports policy initiatives that better protect public health and the environment.