Growing up in Maine, I can remember the rotten egg smell in my nose and the burning pain in my lungs when the local mill released sulfur dioxide waste into the wind. When outside, it sometimes felt like acid rain was inside my respiratory tree.
Because that particular chemical is now known to be an asthma trigger and a carcinogen, it makes me wonder what harm occurred when I was young and why I now wheeze when I run.
Pediatricians know that children’s bodies are uniquely vulnerable to chemical harm. Why is that so?
First, kids of all ages have more exposure to chemicals. A developing fetus can be exposed through umbilical cord blood and an infant through breast milk. Small children spend more time on the floor and ground, exploring by putting objects in their mouths, making them more at risk for chemical exposures than adults who are upright. Teenagers tend to try plenty of chemical products in their drinks, on their hair and for their skin.
Pound for pound, children and adolescents eat more food, breathe more air and drink more fluids that adults. These developing brains and organs are more susceptible to damage. The young are more susceptible and often more exposed to toxins than adults.
Ask me now, as a pediatrician, what chemicals are safe for children, and I will tell you it is best to be cautious. The federal Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976 is the law that should have protected our kids. But it is obsolete, ineffective and in dire need of update.
There are now more than 80,000 chemicals that have been approved or grandfathered in the United States without specific testing for safety. Out of the more than 80,000 chemicals registered with the Environmental Protection Agency over 30 years, the Toxic Substances Control Act has been used to regulate only five chemicals/chemical classes: asbestos; dioxin; polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs; hexavalent chromium; and fully halogenated chlorofluoroalkanes. All five were in the environment causing significant harm for many years before being restricted.
With the additional tens of thousands of new chemicals that are in products used every day, nearly all of them without specific testing for safety, there is reason to pause. Exposure from these chemicals comes through toys, clothing, shampoo, furniture, food and food packaging. Exposure to toxicants in the environment can increase risk for cancer, cause neurological problems and lead to early sexual development.
It is because the Toxic Substances Control Act fails to protect our health that a bill now before Congress, The Safe Chemicals Act of 2011 (S. 847), was introduced.
There is growing evidence that points to common chemicals being potentially harmful. Chemical testing needs to address the greater vulnerabilities of children and pregnant women while specifically examining toxicity in reproduction and neurodevelopment. Safeguards can only occur through more extensive and rigid safety testing. The American Academy of Pediatrics “recommends that chemical management policy in the U.S. be substantially revised to better protect children and pregnant women.”
Many Maine residents support these health efforts. Such groups include Physicians for Social Responsibility and the Alliance for a Clean and Healthy Maine. They are organizing a bus trip to Washington on May 22 to deliver more than 2,000 messages to our senators. Visit the Alliance for a Clean and Healthy Maine website to see how you might get involved or deliver your own message to Sens. Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe toward co-sponsoring The Safe Chemicals Act of 2011. Help keep babies healthy and kids safe from harm.
Dr. Janice Pelletier is a pediatrician from Orono and is vice president of the Maine chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics. Dr. Steve Feder is a pediatrician from Boothbay Harbor and is president of the same organization.