The Toxic Substances Chemical Act (TSCA) is the nation’s primary chemical safety law. But the law has fallen short of reliably protecting families from harmful chemicals.
Until recently, TSCA had never been updated to reflect all that scientists and doctors had learned about how chemicals enter our bodies and what continued daily exposure, even in minute doses, can do to us over time. The law had not been updated to cover what we have learned about fetal development, about how chemicals pass from mothers into their babies, and how vulnerable communities are adversely impacted.
In 2016, Congress passed the Frank R. Lautenberg Chemical Safety for the 21st Century Act. This law passed with overwhelming bipartisan support and was signed into law by President Obama. Our elected officials listened to consumers demanding safeguards against thousands of dangerous chemicals on the market and in our products. This was a major win for our families.
The mission of this landmark law was to protect our families from untested, potentially harmful chemicals. But implementation was slow, and progress was elusive. Then, under President Trump’s EPA, things got even worse. Our chemical regulatory system seemed rigged in favor of the chemical industry, and the implementation of TSCA fell far short of its mission to protect public health. In fact, not one single time did the EPA assess the safety of a new or existing chemicals, “setting back chemicals policies by decades.”
In the early days of Moms Clean Air Force, when we were working on strengthening TSCA, I was a mom of two college students. Now, I’m a grandmother and a mother-in-law. My five “children”—four adults and one toddler—consult me almost daily about whether or not the products they use are safe. They know that I understand that from flame retardants in furniture to microplastics in baby bottles to phthalates in cleaning products, we are exposed to chemicals that are untested and underregulated. And, that it is nearly impossible to navigate the landscape of safety studies and ingredient labels to assess known, suspected, and unknown hazards in our everyday products.
Here’s the scene early this morning:
I receive a text from my daughter with a photo of the ingredients list from a diaper rash cream.
Is Zinc Oxide safe? The baby is playing with the jar, and I need to know if it’s ok to use,” she asks.
I check Poison Control:
“Zinc Oxide is the active ingredient in many over-the-counter diaper rash creams, including Desitin. It is also found in some types of baby powder and sunscreen. Zinc Oxide is not very harmful if a person eats a small amount, but it can be harmful to dogs and cats.”
The baby weighs a lot less than the dog and puts everything in his mouth. So, is it safe?
I have no idea, digging deeper, Googling…
Question: “What agency regulates Zinc Oxide?”
Answer: “Zinc Oxide is on the Hazardous Substance List because it is regulated by OSHA and cited by ACGIH, DOT, NIOSH, DEP and EPA.”
I start with EPA because I have the most knowledge about how that agency works:
“EPA has evaluated the available toxicity data and considered their validity, completeness, and reliability as well as the relationship of the results of the studies to human risk. EPA has also considered available information concerning the variability of the sensitivities of major identifiable subgroups of consumers, including infants and children.”
Scanning the EPA graph there are a lot of “unknowns” listed. But honestly, I’m not a toxicologist and can only vaguely interpret the graph.
Is this nano-zinc? Now I’m confused and concerned.
Checking the ingredients list again I notice the diaper rash cream also contains 1,4-dioxane.
A red flag goes up. I consult EWG’s Skin Deep and find:
According to an EWG assessment of 15,000 ingredients in personal care products, 22% contained 1,4-dioxane, a trace contaminant of petroleum products and a probable human carcinogen as classified by EPA. Not only is this chemical present, but it easily penetrates the skin, contributing to chronic low-level exposure that accumulates over time.
“DO NOT USE THE DIAPER RASH CREAM!” I text my daughter. “Throw it out and I’ll research a safer option.”
I begin Googling all over again…
Does this scene strike a familiar chord? If so, you’re not alone. Parents want to know what chemicals are in the products their family uses every single day, and whether or not the products are safe. And parents have a right to know and to trust that their government is protecting them from chemical risks in our homes and communities. Without this protection, our children and grandchildren pay the price and will continue to be at risk for decades to come.
This is why our MOM DETECTIVE has been writing about toxic chemicals since we began working on chemical reform. Now, we’re taking it one step further and offering anyone who would like to ask a question about the thousands of chemicals your family encounters every day to ask our MOM DETECTIVE (aka Amy Ziff)! She’ll tackle the tough stuff with well-researched scientific answers to questions about toxic chemicals. MOM DETECTIVE will untangle product labels, give tips for chemicals to avoid, and provide safer options.
Main Image: Illustration by Yukai Du via NYT