Who's to Blame?

In April I wrote about my father-in-law who was having surgery to deal with some of the effects of metastatic kidney cancer.  The surgery was successful, and it brought him some relief.  It allowed him to live a few months longer, to celebrate his 69th birthday with his grandchildren, and to spend a little more time in this life with his wife of 45 years and his three children.  But my father-in-law died on July 5th, the funeral was a week later.  He was a wonderful person and his loss will leave a permanent hole in the lives of our whole family.

Anyone who has seen a loved one get sick and die from cancer doesn’t need me to explain it, and for anyone who has been lucky enough so far to avoid that searing experience, my words couldn’t come close to describing it.  It is estimated that more than half a million people in the United States will die from cancer this year.

I can’t pin the blame on the chemical industry or toxic chemicals for having caused my father-in-law’s kidney cancer.  It is rare that one can pinpoint so directly exposure to one or more substances and a subsequent disease 30 or 40 years later (asbestos is a partial exception to that rule).  If I throw a ball at a window, and the window breaks, it is pretty clear that the ball broke the window.  If someone is exposed to toxic chemicals, even those known to cause cancer, reproductive problems, learning or developmental disabilities (and there are plenty of those chemicals widely used in commercial and consumer products), and they experience one or more of those chronic diseases, it is almost impossible to make a direct causal link.  So the best we can do is avoid exposure to unsafe chemicals to the greatest extent possible, allowing for the reality that chemicals are a key component of many aspects of our way of life, and sometimes even chemicals we know are unsafe have critical uses for which there aren’t yet safer alternatives.

That’s where reform of the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) comes in.  Reforming this badly broken law to ensure that exposure to unsafe chemicals is eliminated or minimized as quickly as possible, that information about the health and environmental effects of all chemicals is made public; and that all chemicals on the market are required to meet a standard of safety that protects the public (they aren’t currently) is a critical piece of the puzzle for making our homes, workplaces, schools – our families and our lives safer --  and less likely to experience cancer or other chronic diseases that carry tremendous, incalculable personal and social costs.

I can’t pinpoint blame on the chemical industry, but I can’t absolve it either.  The industry’s record of opposing TSCA reform and standing in the way of efforts to regulate chemicals and protect the public is very long.  It is not a history that can be erased by a few press releases to accommodate shifting political fortunes.  And that history of opposition is still being written.  As detailed in this excellent blog post by my EDF colleague Richard Denison, the chemical industry’s trade association the American Chemistry Council (formerly known as the Chemical Manufacturer’s Association) is talking the talk of reform, but hasn’t even begun to crawl the crawl, let alone walk the walk.

There is nothing that requires the chemical industry to wait for TSCA reform before it provides EPA and the public with information about the health effects and uses of toxic chemicals.  There is nothing preventing the chemical industry from stopping right now the introduction of new chemicals that are persistent in the environment and build up in our bodies, and phasing out the existing uses to the greatest extent possible.  Industry could voluntarily cease its endless campaign, and call-off its army of paid scientists, lobbyists and lawyers who day in and day out flood the offices of Capital Hill and the federal and state environmental and health agencies, challenging every effort to reform the system and protect the public. Nobody should need a law just to do what is right. But the chemical industry clearly does.

The pain my family is in over the loss of my father-in-law is overwhelming and deeply personal.  But the pain that feels so unique to us right now is also felt by hundreds of thousands of families each year in the United States alone.  Families where someone has died from cancer.  As is the pain of families with children whose ability to read, or learn or walk is permanently impaired.  And the pain of those people wanting to start a family who can’t get pregnant. The science is clear (or “sound” as the industry likes to say) that toxic chemicals are associated with some of those instances of illness, learning or developmental disability, and impaired fertility.

Our system for protecting the public from unsafe chemicals is so badly broken and ineffective it can be hard to get your head around it.  Nobody (except perhaps the chemical industry) knows how many chemicals are currently in use, who is making them, where they are making them, what products they are used in, how people might be exposed, or what the potential health (or environmental) effects of those chemicals are. The EPA doesn't know. Your member of Congress doesn't know. Your state's environmental protection agency doesn't know. And you don't know.

It doesn’t need to be that way.  We actually could have a law that requires chemical companies to disclose what chemicals they are making (and how much, and where), what their health effects are, where they are used, and how they are exposed.  We actually could have a law that requires chemicals to be safe, and that allows EPA to restrict the use of chemicals. The chemical industry doesn’t support that. Not really. But we shouldn’t allow the chemical industry to block or stall real reform of our laws to protect people from toxic chemicals.

I learned after he died that my father-in-law thought it was exposure to toxic chemicals in his childhood that caused his cancer, something he never said to me and an idea which I never suggested to him. Time ran out before we could have that conversation.