Persistent, bioaccumulative, toxic: why Congress needs to phase out PBTs now

As Congress gears up for chemical policy reform, key committees have been calling in experts for hearings to discuss the many possible dimensions of much-needed Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) reform legislation.

Today I’m testifying in the latest of these hearings, before the House Energy and Commerce Committee, about an issue that hits home for me personally: persistent bioaccumulative toxicants, or PBTs.  These are some of the “bad actor” chemicals that should be put on a fast track to phaseout in coming TSCA reform legislation. I’ll get to my personal stake in this later, but first, a little background.

Everything that’s dangerous about PBTs is contained in that very term.  They are persistent: once they are released into the environment, they don’t go away.  They are bioaccumulative, actually accumulating and increasing in concentration in living things over time.  That means that even low concentrations in air, water, or soil can lead to levels hundreds or thousands of times higher in living things. And, of course, they are toxic. PCBs, banned in 1979, are a good poster child for this phenomenon.

Remarkably, however, PBTs as a class of chemicals are not a thing of the past. Despite the notoriety of this class and all we have learned about them over the past thirty years, there are still many such chemicals that continue to be used in commerce today —and sometimes in very large quantities. For example, some polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs) are  still used as flame retardants in plastics, polyurethane foams, and textiles even though safer alternatives are available.

The consequence of such delay in getting PBTs and other dangerous chemicals off the market may well have had a personal impact on me.  Three years ago, as I continued my life-long career to reduce toxic chemical pollution, I got a call from my doctor and then found myself struggling to come to terms with the diagnosis every woman dreads – breast cancer.  I found myself thinking what everyone thinks in a situation like this – why did this happen to me? I have a healthy life style, exercise and watch my diet, am a pretty “clean live-er”. I don’t have most of the conventional risk factors for breast cancer, why me?  And not just why me, but why so many colleagues and friends? 

One difference between me and many other women with breast cancer, however, is my familiarity with the science – and with the unforgivable abdication in the government’s responsibility to protect the public from the cancer hazards posed by environmental contaminants.  This is what the weakness of TSCA has yielded over the past thirty years, and it’s time to reform the law.

Common sense tells us that chemicals with a PBT profile are bad actors, and that laws designed to protect people from dangerous environmental contaminants would prioritize the phase out of chemicals with this profile.  Safer chemicals are those that will degrade and metabolize easily back into harmless chemicals after use – not those that will take shelter in our bones, blood or fat deposits for the rest of eternity.

As I will tell the Energy and Commerce Committee today, Congress must mandate the phase-out of at least the handful best known bad actors in a reauthorized TSCA and put our country on a path toward use of safer chemicals.  It must at the same time expand EPA’s authority to collect information for the tens of thousands of chemicals without basic safety data.