Chemicals and Our Health

Agreement is growing across the political spectrum and among scientists, health professionals, and concerned parents that federal law does not adequately protect Americans from toxic chemicals. The primary law responsible for ensuring chemicals are safe—the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA)—was passed in 1976 and has never been updated. The law is so weak that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has only been able to require testing on less than two percent of the more than 80,000 chemicals that have been on the market at some point since TSCA was adopted.[1]

Much has changed since TSCA became law decades ago. Scientists have developed a more refined understanding of how some chemicals can cause and contribute to serious illness, including cancer, reproductive and developmental disorders, neurologic diseases, and asthma.

By reforming TSCA, we can reduce our exposure to toxic chemicals, improve our nation’s health, and lower the cost of health care. This report documents some of the scientific findings and economic analysis in support of meaningful TSCA reform.

Chronic disease: many trends are on the rise

More than 30 years of environmental health studies have led to a growing consensus that chemicals are playing a role in the incidence and prevalence of many diseases and disorders in the United States, including:

  • Leukemia, brain cancer, and other childhood cancers, which have increased by more than 20% since 1975.[2]
  • Breast cancer, the incidence of which went up by 40% between 1973 and 1998.[3] While breast cancer rates have declined in recent years in post-menopausal white women, rates of breast cancer in pre-menopausal white women and post-menopausal black women remain unchanged.[4][5] A woman’s lifetime risk of breast cancer is now one in eight, up from one in ten in 1973.[6]
  • Asthma, which approximately doubled in prevalence between 1980 and 1995 and has continued to rise. In 2009, nearly 1 in 12 Americans had asthma.[7][8]
  • Difficulty in conceiving and maintaining a pregnancy affected 40% more women in 2002 than in 1982. From 1982 to 1995, the incidence of reported difficulty almost doubled in younger women, ages 18–25.[9][10]
  • The birth defect resulting in undescended testicles (cryptorchidism) increased sharply between 1970 and 1993, with uncertain trends since then.[11]
  • Learning and developmental disabilities, including autism and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, affect nearly one in six U.S.
    children, as of 2008.[12] Between 1997 and 2008, the prevalence of autism increased nearly 300% nationally.[13]

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 133 million people in the U.S.—almost half of all Americans—are now living with these and other chronic diseases, which account for 70% of deaths and 75% of U.S. health care costs.[14]

In general, these and other common diseases or disorders are the result of many factors, but many chemicals, by themselves or in combination with other chemical and non-chemical factors, can be harmful to multiple systems in the body, increasing the risk of adverse health outcomes.

The health and economic benefits of reforming chemical policy

mother and daughterEstimates of the proportion of the disease burden that can be attributed to chemicals vary. A recent World Health Organization review conservatively estimates that the global disease burden related to chemicals is more than 8%.[15] Here in the United States, researchers estimate that 5% of childhood cancer and 30% of childhood asthma are attributable to chemical exposures.[16][17]

Whatever the actual contribution of chemicals to the overall disease burden or specific diseases, effective chemical policy reform will incorporate the last 30+ years of science to reduce those exposures that contribute to chronic disease and provide incentives to move to safer alternatives. Any decline in the incidence of chronic diseases also can be expected to lower health care costs.

The U.S. now spends over $7,000 per person per year directly on health care.[18] This sum does not include the cost of additional impacts, such as the costs of educating children with learning disabilities or emotional costs to a family coping with a mother’s breast cancer diagnosis. Chemical policy reform holds the promise of reducing the economic, social, and personal costs of chronic disease by creating a healthier future for all Americans.

  1. Denison R. Ten essential elements in TSCA reform. Environmental Law Review 2009; 39:10020.
  2. America’s Children and the Environment: Measures of contaminants, body burdens, and illnesses [Internet]. Washington, DC: Environmental Protection Agency; [updated 2011 March 8; cited 2003]. Available from:;
  3. Howe H, et al. Annual report to the nation on the status of cancer (1973 through 1998), Featuring cancers with recent increasing trends. Journal of the National Cancer Institute 2001;93(11):824-842.
  4. SEER Cancer Statistics Review, 1975-2008 [Internet]. Bethesda: National Cancer Institute; [2012 March 25]. Available from:
  5. Breast Cancer Trends [Internet]. Atlanta: U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; [updated 2011 October 3]. Available from:
  6. State of the Evidence: The connection between breast cancer and the environment [Internet]. San Francisco: Breast Cancer Fund; [2010 October 1]. Available from:
  7. Woodruff T, et al. Trends in environmentally related childhood illnesses. Pediatrics, 2004;113(4):1133-1140.
  8. Vital Signs: Asthma prevalence, disease characteristics and self-management education – United States, 2001-2009 [Internet]. Atlanta: U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report 2011 60(17):547-552; [2011 May 6]. Available from:
  9. Chandra A, et al. Impaired fecundity in the United States: 1982–1995. Family Planning Perspectives 1998;30(1):34-42.
  10. Chandra A, et al. Fertility, family planning, and reproductive health of U.S. women: Data from the 2002 National Survey of Family Growth. National Center for Health Statistics. Vital and Health Statistics 2005;23(25).
  11. Paulozzi L. International trends in rates of hypospadias and cryptorchidism. Environmental Health Perspectives 1999;107(4):297-302.
  12. Boyle C, et al. Trends in the prevalence of developmental disabilities in U.S. children, 1997-2008. Pediatrics 2011;127(6):1034-1042.
  13. Boyle C, et al. Trends in the prevalence of developmental disabilities in U.S. children, 1997-2008. Pediatrics 2011;127(6):1034-1042.
  14. The Power of Prevention: Chronic disease…the public health challenge of the 21st century [Internet]. Washington, DC: National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion; [2009]. Available from:
  15. Prüss-Ustün A, et al. Knowns and unknowns on burden of disease due to chemicals: a systematic review. Environmental Health 2011;10:9.
  16. Landrigan P, et al. Environmental pollutants and disease in American children: Estimates of morbidity, mortality, and costs for lead poisoning, asthma, cancer, and developmental disabilities. Environmental Health Perspectives 2002;110(7):721-728.
  17. Trasande L, et al. Reducing the staggering costs of environmental disease in children, estimated at $76.6 billion in 2008. Health Affairs 2011;30(5):863-870.
  18. The Power of Prevention: Chronic disease…the public health challenge of the 21st century [Internet]. Washington, DC: National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion; [2009]. Available from: