Toxic Chemicals: Neglected Threats to Health and Reproduction

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Commentary Environment

Toxic Chemicals: Neglected Threats to Health and Reproduction

Jennifer Rogers

Despite the introduction of thousands of new chemicals into the products we use every day, the Toxic Substances Control Act has undergone no revisions since 1976.

America’s bicentennial year, 1976, was one of phenomenal events and inventions: Apple Inc was founded; West Point began to admit women; my husband was born; and the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), our primary chemical safety law, was enacted. In the ensuing 34 years, much has changed. The boxy desktop computer bears almost no resemblance to the recently launched iPad; women are serving valiantly in both Iraq and Afghanistan; and my husband has gone from a pudgy baby to a gray-haired professor.

Unfortunately, despite the introduction of thousands of new chemicals into the products we use every day, TSCA has undergone no revisions.  Scientists, health care providers, reproductive and environmental health advocates agree: TSCA has not kept up with the times.

When TSCA was passed in 1976, it was considered a huge step forward in the government’s ability to regulate toxic chemicals. To some degree, however, TSCA was already outdated before it was signed into law. Many dangerous chemicals were “grandfathered in” under the new law and remain in use today. Many new chemicals remain unregulated because the legislation was limited in scope.

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As a result, one of the primary deficiencies of TSCA is that the chemicals we encounter in our daily lives—in our water and baby bottles, food containers, children’s toys, household cleaners, and personal care products—are not tested for safety and these chemicals are harming the reproductive health and fertility of women, men and children. Lower-income and communities of color are disproportionately and adversely affected by chemicals in consumer products whether through workplace exposure, specific marketing of niche products, or through products sold in and to their communities. For example, dollar stores, typically located in lower-income communities, are often the last stop for consumer products that can not or will not be sold in other stores. These products, including house wares, toys, jewelry, and food and drink containers, often have been recalled or discontinued. However, these products end up in dollar stores with little regulation or oversight. Likewise, environmental and reproductive justice organizations have long been concerned with the toxic chemicals found in skin lighteners and hair relaxers, products marketed specifically to women of color.

Pregnant women and children are another group among the most vulnerable to toxic chemicals.  We know that the short- and long-term effects of early exposure to even low levels of toxic chemicals have been linked to a host of health problems including childhood cancer, early puberty, reduced fertility, and learning and developmental disabilities, including autism and ADHD.  Phthalates, for example, a common product found in vinyl, cosmetics, fragrance, and medical devices, has been linked to early puberty, infertility and endometriosis. Although some phthalates have been banned from children’s products, they remain poorly regulated under TSCA.

Toxic chemicals can accumulate or build up in our bodies, negatively impacting our health and our future pregnancies long after exposure. Hormone disruptors (also known as endocrine disrupting chemicals) are one class of chemicals of particular concern because they alter the essential hormone balance required for overall health including the function and regulation of our reproductive health system. Bisphenol A (or BPA) is a widely known hormone disruptor commonly used in plastics products such as water and baby bottles as well as in the lining of canned food, beverages, and infant formula. In 2008, BPA became a household word when news emerged that the popular bottle maker, Nalgene, decided to stop using plastic made with BPA due to growing concern about the negative health impacts of this chemical.

Experience has shown that TSCA does not provide EPA with the regulatory mechanisms necessary to protect public health. The decision by Nalgene, for example, was made voluntarily due to consumer and media pressure. The federal government has not issued any regulations regarding BPA. In addition to phthalates and BPA, there are currently more than 80,000 different chemicals produced and used in the US. In 34 years, EPA has been able to require testing on just 200 of these chemicals and only 5 have been restricted. In fact, EPA tried to use TSCA to restrict asbestos 18 years ago and failed; they haven’t tried since. And why would they? Despite spending tens of millions of dollars and amassing thousands of pages of evidence, the EPA was unable to prove that asbestos presented an “unreasonable risk.” In other words, TSCA’s burden of proof is so high that under this legislation not even the worst of the worst chemicals, like asbestos, can be taken off the market.

Even as I write this, I begin to feel nervous, angry, and overwhelmed. How can this be true? For years, I’ve used products that may have caused me and my family harm. I have come to realize that as much as anyone can try to do research and keep up with the science, we can’t all be PhDs in chemistry. And we can’t shop our way out of the problem. I shouldn’t have to figure out what’s safe and what’s not.  This is why we have government. We need a new, modern law that protects us all. Having just witnessed passage of historic healthcare legislation now is the time for Congress, especially the Democratic Party, to get serious about issues that are adversely affecting reproductive health, family health, and the general health of lower-income populations.

I believe the reproductive health movement must be a key player in achieving chemical policy reform.  Our movement has a legitimate, unique, and necessary role to play in educating the American public about the dangers of toxic chemicals and in mobilizing for policy change. Not only do we have considerable resources and infrastructure to contribute to these efforts, but according to recent opinion research, three of the four most effective messages in support of chemical policy reform involve reproductive health concerns.

And now is the opportune time for reproductive health and justice organizations to get involved. The impact of toxic chemicals on human health has recently captured the imaginations of the media, public, and policymakers. In fact, 12 states and the District of Columbia have already introduced legislation to ban BPA. Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times has written on the links between toxic chemicals and diseases such as cancer and autism.

Perhaps most notably, champions of environmental health in the US Senate currently stand poised to introduce legislation to reform TSCA. Sponsored by Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ), the Safe Chemicals Act of 2010 would empower the EPA to require testing of chemicals and to regulate chemicals we know harm health. It should come to no surprise that our main opposition for reform is the chemical industry. However, the leading chemical industry association, the American Chemistry Council, finally endorsed reform of TSCA in 2009, reversing its long-standing opposition. But reforming TSCA is not about an updated marketing ploy—instead, we need to ensure this legislation includes a few key principles:

  • Basic Safety Information for All Chemicals: All chemicals should have basic health and safety information as a condition for entering or remaining on the market — something other laws already require for drugs and pesticides.  
  • Expedited Action on the Most Dangerous Chemicals: Ensure that the EPA moves quickly to reduce the impact of those chemicals already known to be dangerous.
  • Real-World Analysis Using the Best Science: Currently, chemicals are assessed (when assessed at all) as if a person is exposed to individual chemicals in isolation.  Instead, we need to follow the National Academies of Sciences recommendations that cumulative exposure to chemicals, such as they are experienced in the real world, should be considered when the EPA reviews chemicals for safety.

And while toxic chemical reform many not be as sexy as the newest gadget from Apple or as visually symbolic as women at West Point, the impact these chemicals are having on our nations collective reproductive health is dangerous and pervasive. If we want to give birth to and raise the next generation of innovative thinkers or brave service members, we need to start at the beginning: the health of their mothers. Thousand of people have added their voices to this growing movement– will you?