June 30, 2009

A Renewed Focus on a Controversial Topic: Chemical Exposures

Patti Truant

Patti Truant

CLF-Lerner Fellow

Center for a Livable Future

It was meant to be the kickoff of a national conversation, but the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) sponsored meeting on chemical exposures and public health, held in Washington last week, felt more like an argument at times.

The meeting started off predictably enough—with Howard Frumkin, the director of the CDC’s National Center for Environmental Health, Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, discussing the importance of strengthening scientific understanding of chemical exposures, urging better collaboration among public health agencies, local governments and non-governmental organizations, and outlined the goal of developing an action agenda for strengthening the public health approach to chemical exposures. This agenda, he said, should be based on values everyone can get behind—including prevention of morbidity and mortality, good science, the effective use of resources, care for vulnerable populations, and responsible stewardship for future generations.

Lisa Jackson, the new administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, won the loudest applause of the day for her remarks. Jackson, who leads a staff of 18,000 at the EPA, said she aims to restore America’s faith in the EPA to protect them and preserve the environment. By refocusing on core issues such as chemical management, reporting requirements, environmental justice, land use management—Jackson hopes to bring increased accountability to the agency.

But the lovefest quickly ended when they opened up the floor for comments. A steady stream of concerned citizens, physicians, and epidemiologists appeared at the mike to express their frustration and anger with a system that they feel has failed.

This tension was centered around the lack of clear action addressing the known and unknown dangers of exposures to chemicals in water, in the air, in common household items, and in our food. The general consensus was that a paradigm shift in which precaution rules—and companies producing a chemical must prove it is safe before it is released on the market, is needed. The way it works now, individuals who believe they have suffered from exposure to a chemical bear the burden of proof—a very difficult, and often impossible task.

Many questions linger about the impact of chemicals on health, acceptable levels of exposure, the viability of risk assessment techniques, disproportionate impacts on children and other vulnerable populations, the synergistic effects of multiple chemicals, and a host of other complex factors. Given these challenges, the existence of this conference to open the lines of communication and focus the important work of building up scientific evidence and developing policy solutions is a good thing, regardless of past mistakes and future bumps in the road.

Patti Truant

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