Pending “Safe Chemicals Act” Needs More Public Health Protections to Reduce Carcinogens in Products, Communities

After an exhaustive review, the President’s Cancer Panel (PCP) today released a report identifying chemicals in the environment as a significant contributor to cancer in the United States. Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families (SCHF)–a coalition representing more than 11 million health care professionals, environmental health advocates and concerned parents around the country—applauded the report and called for action on cancer-causing chemicals.

“It’s official: we can’t win the war on cancer until we get serious about chemicals,” said Sarah Janssen, MD, PhD, MPH, Natural Resources Defense Council, a founding member of the Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families coalition. “We applaud the panel for recognizing strong scientific research linking chemical exposure to cancer. Now Congress and EPA need to catch-up with new policies to protect public health that reduce the burden of this terrible disease.”

Many of the policy recommendations issued by the President’s Cancer Panel align with principles of the Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families coalition. The report criticized current federal policy for allowing cancer-causing chemicals to proliferate in the marketplace and called for strengthening the chemical regulatory system in the U.S. The report found that agencies responsible for promulgating and enforcing regulations related to environmental exposures are “failing to carry out their responsibilities,” and recommended upgrading the system of environmental regulations to be “driven by science and free of political or industry influence” to protect public health.

Last month, both the U.S. House and Senate unveiled legislation to overhaul the nation’s outdated chemical law, the Toxic Substances Control Act. That law has been widely criticized for preventing EPA from regulating even the small group of known human carcinogens, while also failing to keep pace with more recent science. Though the bills differ, each would require chemicals to be assessed for safety as a condition of remaining on the market. Each would also enact a program for “hot spots”- communities in the country that are especially hard-hit by chemical pollution.

Both pieces of legislation fall short of public health goals in three critical areas: 1) New chemicals would be allowed on the market without having to be proven safe; 2) Action on the most dangerous chemicals, persistent, bioaccumulative toxic chemicals, is deferred; 3) Scientific best practices recommended by the National Academy of Sciences to modernize and improve the methods EPA uses to assess chemical safety, are not incorporated.

“This report should not only galvanize Congress to get chemical reform done but to get it done right,” said Andy Igrejas, Director of the Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families coalition. “We don’t want to look back after a new panel, 10 or 20 years from now and see that we missed our opportunity to reduce the burden of cancer on a new generation.”

A report released by the Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families coalition, “The Health Case for Reforming the Toxic Substances Control Act,” focused on the links between environmental contamination and cancer. Cancer is the second most common cause of death in the U.S., exceeded only by heart disease. More than 1.5 million people were diagnosed with new cases of cancer in 2009. In 2008 the direct medical costs of cancer were $93.2 billion and the overall costs were $228.1 billion. Medical costs for pediatric cancers alone in 1997 totaled an estimated $3.9 billion.

Over the past two decades, the rates of some cancers rose significantly, including:

  • Kidney, liver, thyroid, esophageal and testicular cancer, as well as melanoma in men.
  • Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, Hodgkin’s disease, melanoma and cancers of the thyroid, liver, and kidney in women.
  • Childhood cancers overall, especially childhood leukemia and brain cancer

Chemicals that the Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families coalition have prioritized for regulatory action due to their significant impact on health and the environment were singled out by the panel for action, including asbestos, formaldehyde, and trichloroethylene (TCE). Formaldehyde, for example, is used in furniture, paneling, insulation, wallpaper, adhesives and lacquers. TCE is a chlorinated hydrocarbon largely used as an industrial solvent but also has been found as a contaminant in drinking water. Much of the certainty around known human carcinogens stems from studies in the workplace where the link between a chemical and cancer in particular workers is, tragically, easier to document.

More recently, however, scientists have published a flood of research linking other common chemicals – like bisphenol A (BPA) – to cancer in animals, often at very low doses, and also documenting widespread exposure of people to these chemicals through the technology of bio-monitoring. (Bio-monitoring involves measuring a chemical in human blood, tissue or urine.) This research has come at the same time that rates of several cancers have increased markedly in the United States, including leukemia and childhood cancer. The Panel also cited this research in coming to its conclusions.