Pediatricians seek better regulation of toxins

Posted on Apr 28, 2011 in Uncategorized

By Liz Szabo, USA TODAYUpdated 1d 16h ago

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The U.S. needs to do a better job protecting children and pregnant women from toxic chemicals, says a policy statement out today from the American Academy of Pediatrics.

By Katye Martens, USA TODAY

The group says children’s developing brains and bodies are far more vulnerable than adults’ to toxins. And while pediatricians typically spend more time in the clinic than on Capitol Hill, the policy’s authors say they felt compelled to advocate for patients who can’t defend themselves.

“Kids don’t vote,” says pediatrician Jerome Paulson of Children’s National Medical Center in Washington, D.C., lead author of the statement.

The pediatrics group is the latest of a growing number of medical organizations — including the American Medical Association, American Nurses Association and American Public Health Association— to call for changes in the way that the government regulates dangerous chemicals.

MORE: A list of potentially dangerous chemicals

The Toxic Substances Control Act hasn’t been updated since 1976, Paulson says.

That law treats chemicals as “innocent until proven guilty,” which puts the burden on the government to prove something is harmful, says pediatrician Harvey Karp, a longtime environmental advocate who was not involved in the new policy.

The current law is so weak that the Environmental Protection Agency wasn’t even able to use it to ban asbestos, says Sarah Janssen, senior scientist with the Natural Resources Defense Council.

In all, the law has been used to regulate just five chemicals or chemical classes out of the 80,000 chemicals used by businesses, Paulson says. And although companies are required to notify the EPA about new chemicals, they aren’t require to test chemicals for safety. Only about 15% of these notifications include health or safety test data, according to the Government Accountability Office.

Yet there’s growing evidence that children face real harm from chemicals in their homes, schools and communities, Janssen says. Three studies published last week, for example, found that children exposed to the highest levels of pesticides before birth had lower IQ scores than other kids. Other studies have found that boys exposed before birth to the highest levels of phthalates — chemicals widely used in plastic — were more likely to be born with anatomical defects such as undescended testes.

A study from the Environmental Working Group found that babies are born “pre-polluted” with more than 200 chemicals, including flame retardants, lead and pesticides banned 30 years ago, says pediatrician Alan Greene, who participated in the research.

Of the top 3,000 chemicals produced in the USA, only 12 have been “adequately tested for their effects on the developing brain,” Janssen says.

When research is done, such as through the National Institutes of Health, taxpayers typically foot the bill, not manufacturers, Karp says. Congress should require that manufacturers pay for testing, he adds.

Many children’s advocates say they’re concerned that toxic exposures could be fueling the recent rise in early puberty in girls and a variety of chronic diseases, such as autism, allergies, asthma and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD.

“When the nation’s pediatricians sound the alarm, it’s time to act,” says Ken Cook, president of the Environmental Working Group. “These are the doctors who see and treat more and more children with autism, ADHD, cancer and other serious health problems that are on the rise.”

Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., has introduced legislation to update the regulation of toxic chemicals four times. His most recent effort, the Safe Chemicals Act of 2011, was introduced this month.

Some children’s advocates say they are more hopeful this time, because the chemical industry now supports changing the law.

Updating the law makes good business sense, because it will give consumers more confidence in purchases, says Kelly Semrau of SC Johnson, which makes Raid and Windex.

“Chemically formulated products can be found under nearly every kitchen sink in America, and it is important that the regulation of these products is up to date.”

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