Charlotte BrodyBy Charlotte Brody, National Field Director

I’m a nurse. I’m a mother. I’ve been working on finding solutions to the health problems caused by toxic chemicals for a long time. And I look like the kind of stranger you can talk to. So I get told a lot of stories and asked a lot of questions about disease and health.

Breast cancer. Asthma. Autism. Alzheimer’s. Difficulty getting and staying pregnant and having a healthy child. The people in the grocery store line are worried. You don’t have to study the data from the National Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to conclude that, in spite of all the money we’re spending on health care, Americans are sick and getting sicker. And you don’t have to show them this morning’s Environmental Health News to learn that people believe that exposure to toxic chemicals is part of the reason that we’re as sick as we are.

The young mothers sitting next to me on the airplane want to know what to do to protect their health and the health of their families. They’re ready to take my recommendations and change their lives. Do I use a microwave? What cosmetics do I buy? How long did I breastfeed? Are there things I eat and don’t eat? Do I take supplements and vitamins? What is my water bottle made from? Yet nobody has ever asked me about my recommendations for federal legislation.

Of course, I have my own highly developed answers to all these consumer questions. Like my questioner, I’ve been programmed to find the individual solution to every life problem. And, as an educated and progressive woman who shops for my family, I have been programmed to believe it is my duty to use every dollar I spend to protect the rainforest and union shops, prevent child labor and global warming, and reduce my family’s exposure to pesticides in foods and toxic chemicals in cleaning products.

I have the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Guide almost memorized. But I would have a hard time recognizing my Congressman or Senators (and I went door to door for them in the last elections). Given the fact that companies are not even required to disclose all the toxic ingredients in their products (remember SIGG?), this consumer focus is showing its limits. So I want to propose that we start exercising the atrophied citizen muscle that Annie Leonard talks about and let our consumer muscle take a little rest. And I want to propose that chemical policy reform is the perfect exercise regimen to get us all in citizen shape.

In 1976, Congress passed the Toxics Substance Control Act. It grandfathered in all of the 76,000 chemicals in use without requiring that they be tested. That was pretty bad. Then when EPA tried to use TSCA to ban asbestos in the 1980s it got even worse. The courts ruled that TSCA didn’t give EPA that power to ban asbestos and the EPA stopped trying to use TSCA to get dangerous chemicals off the market.

In the 33 years since TSCA became law, new science has showed us many more ways that chemicals can harm people’s health and the health of the environment. Over that time, a growing number of cities, states, retailers and downstream manufacturers of goods have battled the chemical industry and won phthalate free toys, cosmetics and medical devices and sippy cups and baby bottles without Bisphenol A. And now, national leaders with the power to really do something are starting to take on toxic chemicals. Barack Obama is now in the White House. He’s appointed Lisa Jackson as EPA Administrator and she’s stated clearly that we need to overhaul toxic chemical policy. .U.S. Representatives Henry Waxman and Bobby Rush and Senators Frank Lautenberg and Barbara Boxer are drafting legislation as you read this post. In other words, the possibility of strong chemical policy reform is quite real. So real that even the chemical industry is saying they want reform.

So while I’m not going to stop using my bisphenol A-free water bottle, I am going to stop putting so much energy into shopping smart. When somebody asks me if they should be worried about the material in their shower curtain or if they should take fish oil capsules instead of eating fish, I’ll answer their question. But in the same breath I am going to offer up that the real solution won’t come in a pill. The real solution will be in a bill that the Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families campaign is pressing Congress to create. A bill to create a new chemical policy for our country that will mean less toxic products and less contaminated communities. Less cancer and lower levels of learning disabilities. Fewer discussions about which product to buy and more dialogues in diverse coalitions that are working to build the country we hope to leave our children. Join me.