It is difficult not to think of the EPA in the context of its entire existence – tracking the environmental successes, experiments and failures as if the same people were making those decisions all along, or even as if it were a disembodied entity that makes its own decisions. But we have to remember that the people behind the EPA of today are drastically different from those of the EPA of ten years ago, and while there is hope on the horizon, they’ve got a very difficult mess to clean up.
Case in point: The current EPA, led by Administrator Lisa P. Jackson, is creating a “Chemicals of Concern” list, a move that would never have been made in past years. But looking back, it is still disconcerting that this list needs to be created, and that if done comprehensively and without fear of public relations repercussions, it will truthfully be very, very long.
One of these chemicals has gotten a lot of attention in the past months. Just days ago, a study was released by UC Berkeley linking flame-retardant chemicals called polybrominated diphenyl ethers, or PBDEs, with lower fertility levels in women. The researchers surveyed 223 women and found that those with higher levels of PBDEs were 30 to 50 percent less likely to become pregnant.
Some skeptics might balk at a study that suggests that a chemical affects fertility in 5 percent, or fewer. But 30 to 50 percent? That’s striking and incredibly scary. And if there’s that large of an effect before the child is even born, how will the babies of those women be affected?
So the American people of today are paying for the negligence and deference (or perhaps more forgivingly, ignorance) of past EPA officials. And while the repercussions of this will certainly live on for years to come, we need to stop the cycle right where it is. And that’s with testing.
Some arguments could be made about the reasons for not more thoroughly testing household chemicals, pesticides, etc. ten or more years ago. Frankly, most of these are faulty. The most common reason for inadequate testing is that officials feel that the need for that chemical is dire enough to limit or eliminate the research and testing phase of the product. And timing is a valid concern – most chemicals should be tested for “long-term effects,” which could mean ten years, and preferably longer. But this advance planning is part of what the chemical companies have been allowed to shirk for decades. Chemicals simply should not be put on the market until they have undergone this testing.
Part of the shift that is (hopefully) occurring with the current EPA in this regard is related to the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA). This act allows the EPA to require manufacturers and processors of chemicals to test the effect of their chemicals for health and environmental impacts. But the problem comes with the fact that this law is from 1976 and is in need of serious updates and reforms. The “Chemicals of Concern” list is one step in the right direction.
While studies like the UC Berkeley one are extremely frightening, the current EPA officials are (at least in words) heading in the right direction. If we as citizens keep the pressure on and insist that the products we use in our homes are safe and well-tested, we can keep the EPA honest, in its current form and those to come.