For those of us who lived through the 1950s, the slogan “Better Living Through Chemistry” pervaded the airways and invaded our living rooms on that miraculous new invention, the TV set. The blissful ignorance of that decade has since been replaced by scores of reasons to be concerned about the chemicals our families are exposed to every day, their consequences and costs.
Numerous chronic diseases and disabilities, many with childhood onsets, have been linked to chemicals found in our air, our water and in everyday consumer products. Coincident with the growth of plastics, pesticides and other ingenious synthetic chemical products, rates of cancer in the U.S. increased by 35 percent from 1950 to 1991, excluding lung cancer. Maine now leads the nation with the highest cancer incidence of any state, and its childhood cancer rate is above the national average. Diseases caused by chemical exposures exact a heavy toll in Maine, both personally and economically.
A recent study of the childhood disease burden released by the University of Maine and published in the upcoming April 2010 edition of the Maine Policy Review provides insight into the true impact of toxic chemical exposures in our children. The study applied the available scientific information on the relationship between environmental exposures and disease to estimate the number of cases of childhood illnesses each year related to neurobehavioral conditions, cancer, asthma and lead poisoning.
Combined with information on the cost of these diseases, the study determined that the annual cost associated with toxic environmental exposures in Maine for these four childhood diseases is $380 million, and possibly as high as $484 million. That’s over $1,350 for every Maine child — a heavy burden by any measure. Since the cost estimates are derived only from a small number of potential disease categories, and address only these diseases in children, these numbers clearly underestimate the total economic impact of environmental contaminants in Maine.
Although these numbers are in line with similar studies done in other states, Maine children suffer disproportionately from cancer and asthma when compared with children in other parts of the country. Also alarming was the strong increasing trend over the past few years in the number of public school students receiving special education services (now nearly one in five students) and specifically the growth in the number of children classified as autistic (up nearly 60 percent in only three years). Some of this increase may be attributed to greater awareness and diagnosis, although that certainly cannot account for all of the increase that we see.
Clearly, a stronger investment in reducing toxic exposures would reduce health care costs. An underlying problem is the failure of the federal statute enacted over 30 years ago to ensure the safety of chemicals in commerce, the Toxic Substances Control Act, or ToSCA. Contrary to popular assumption that chemicals in commerce have all been tested for safety, this statute does not generally require such testing and places an almost insurmountable burden on the Environmental Protection Agency to regulate the use of toxic chemicals.
The multiple failures of ToSCA have been well delineated in a 2007 report of the Governor’s Task Force to Promote Safer Chemicals in Consumer Products. The Maine Legislature took a big step forward to tackle this problem by enacting the Kid-Safe Product Law in 2008.
Sen. Frank Lautenberg and Reps. Henry Waxman and Bobby Rush have just introduced the Safe Chemicals Act of 2010, a proposal for a major overhaul of ToSCA. It would require manufacturers to develop and make publicly available basic health and safety information for all chemicals. It would also require chemicals to meet a health-based safety standard that protects the most vulnerable, including children.
As Sen. Lautenberg put it, “We’re saying those who make the chemicals — and there are 700 new ones that come to market each year — ought to be responsible for testing them first before they’re released to the public, instead of having the EPA play detective to search and try to find problems.” While there is a need to strengthen this proposal in several respects, it is an important start to the critical process of improving health through reducing toxic exposures.
Maine people pay the costs of our broken federal chemical safety system every day in many ways. We urge Maine’s congressional delegation to support and strengthen the federal reform legislation, while protecting the progress made by Maine and other states for chemical safety.
Mary Davis is an adjunct assistant professor and Sharon Tisher is an instructor in the School of Economics at the University of Maine.