Shoppers can’t possibly avoid all potentially dangerous chemicals on their own -- questions have been raised about chemicals found in canned foods, clothing, furniture, cleaning products, pesticides, air pollution, cosmetics, toys and baby items. So, the government must do more to regulate them, the Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families group said.
“We need chemical policy that protects our most vulnerable citizens,” said Donna Ferullo, director of program research at the Autism Society, a parent advocacy group.
The Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families coalition called for an overhaul of the three-decades-old federal law that regulates chemical safety, called the Toxic Substances Control Act. Earlier this year, Senator Frank Lautenberg, D-NJ, introduced legislation to modify the law, though the odds of passing major chemical industry reform in an election year are slim.
Chemical industry consultant Neal Langerman said he agrees that it’s time to overhaul the 1976 law -- not because of autism concerns, but because it doesn’t reflect current realities.
The law was written, he said, at a time when scientists thought low-level exposure to most chemicals was safe. Now, Langerman said, we realize “we are more sensitive to these low levels than we thought we were.” And we’re also less willing today to believe companies and government when they say -- but don’t prove -- that products are safe. “That’s a significant change in our society,” said Langerman, also an officer with the American Chemical Society, a professional group for chemists.
Another recent change: The countries in the European Union have begun aggressively demanding more information on chemicals once waved through the regulatory process. That European law, hailed by environmentalists, “went way to far” and is extremely difficult to comply with, Langerman said.
But, he concedes with a slight scoff in his voice that his own grown children have stopped using canned foods out of concern about bisphenol-A, a chemical found in some plastics and can liners.
Irva Hertz-Piccotto, an epidemiologist involved in the Safer Chemicals news conference Tuesday, said the rising number of children with autism cannot be fully explained by genetics, better awareness, or a broader definition of the condition.
She thinks the rest of the increase must be blamed on the environment -- exposure to chemicals in air pollution, pesticides, and household products can affect children when mothers are exposed before conception and kids are exposed during the first few years of life. Some of these substances, said Hertz-Piccotto, chief of the Division of Environmental Health at the University of California, Davis, affect hormones that are essential for brain development. Other chemicals are known to affect the immune system.
Autism is a communication and developmental condition that affects the brain, but is also often linked to immune problems, such as allergies, asthma, and auto-immune diseases, as well as other physical problems.
Dr. Suruchi Chandra, another participant in the news conference, said there is also some indication that certain chemicals may disrupt thyroid function -- which is critical to early brain development -- and cause problems in cellular power plants, called mitochondria.
No one can say whether autism and other childhood health problems are "caused" by any of these chemicals, said Chandra, an Illinois psychiatrist who treats patients with autism. “It’s not simple as saying they’re caused by environmental toxins -- there are a number of factors and they usually include genetic vulnerabilities, nutrition, infection, stress, drugs, and exposure to environmental toxins.”
But families, doctors, and the US government need to do more, Chandra and her peers said, to consider the role environmental toxins play in childhood health.
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