Is Your Child Safe from Environmental Hazards?

Our children face potential dangers from toxic substances in their air, food, and water. The Voluntary Children’s Chemical Evaluation Program, a new plan by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), aims to do something about this problem by setting up a series of rodent tests to identify safe exposure levels for children.

Is this plan a good idea or a bad one?

The Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM) says it’s a bad one: “There is a better way. Let’s assume that toxic chemicals don’t belong in food, air, water, and breast milk. And let’s do what we can to get rid of them. Using misleading data from animal tests to set supposedly ‘safe’ levels of toxic exposures for children makes no sense.” (Background Information on the EPA’s Deadly Delaying Tactics)

According the PCRM, the plan has several problems, including:

  • We already have extensive information on many of the chemicals that are planned to be tested. For example, benzene is a known human carcinogen with a safe level of exposure of zero. Despite this, it is still legal to release this chemical into the environment and nearly 9 million pounds were released in 1998.
  • The proposed tests will kill at least 100,000 animals in the pilot phase alone. Not only is this cruel to animals, but many scientists feel that animal tests are not an accurate way to test for human toxicity.
  • The program looks at individual chemicals to determine a safe level for children for each chemical. But we’re exposed to many chemicals at the same time and looking at them individually can’t give a real-life picture of their potential danger.

The PCRM believes that the EPA should help parents reduce the risk to their children by informing them of chemical contamination in their communities and by giving them information about what they can do to reduce the risk.

PCRM also suggests that the EPA

-give high priority to monitoring chemicals and biological substances in the environment and in our body tissues.
-must track down the sources of toxic chemicals, since we need to know where they’re coming from if we’re going to eliminate or avoid them. The ideal standard should be reducing the exposure to zero or to natural background levels.
-study all available data on human chemical toxicity, since animal studies don’t give the full picture.

According to the PCRM, the seven most serious risks to our children’s health are:

-Lead (For more information about lead poisoning, read Nanny’s Notes 1)
-Intentional maternal use of alcohol and tobacco during pregnancy
-Children under six accidentally swallowing dangerous substances
-Certain foods which have unusual chemical risks which affect large numbers of children. For example, there is some evidence bovine peptides in baby formulas may increase your child’s risk of insulin-dependent diabetes.

The Report on the EPA’s Voluntary Children’s Chemical Evaluation Program also gives information on several dangerous chemicals that are found in the environment. Here are brief notes about just some of them. Please read the full report for more details.

Dangerous Chemicals

Benzene is a known human carcinogen, and has a strong association with leukemia and cancers of the blood. In 1948 the American Petroleum Institute published a toxicological review of this chemical, stating that the only safe exposure is zero. But more than 50 years later, benzene is used in many industries to make products such as plastics, nylons, rubbers, dyes, detergents, drugs and pesticides. It is also found in crude oil, gasoline and cigarette smoke.
You and your children are most likely to be exposed to benzene by breathing contaminated air. This can happen at gasoline stations and in areas with heavy traffic, or places where there is cigarette smoke.

Chloroform has been classified by the The International Agency for Research on Cancer as a probable human carcinogen. It may also be a neurotoxicant and cause developmental and reproductive effects. The main way you and your family can be exposed to this chemical is by drinking or swimming in chlorinated water, but you can also contact it by breathing contaminated air. The PCRM believes that children could be protected from its potential toxic effects by the use of other, non-chemical, methods to purify the water supply.

Methyl ethyl ketone (MEK) has been shown to have toxic effects on unborn children, and may be a neurotoxicant and a carcinogen. MEK is used for a variety of things, including as a fragrance and flavoring agent in candy and perfumes, and in fabric coating, lacquering, varnishing, paint removers, adhesives and cleaning fluids.

Women who work in industries where MEK is used can be exposed to a dose hundreds of times higher than the “reference dose” set by the EPA (which may not be safe in the first place). If you don’t work in such an industry, you can be exposed through the use of consumer products, especially paints and adhesives, or through contaminated food, water or air.

Naphthalene is classed as a possible human carcinogen. There is also extensive evidence of its toxicity, including toxic effect and death in human babies. This chemical is found naturally in fossil fuels. It’s most common use is in the making of moth balls, but it is also used for making substances such as dyes and resins. It has been found in human breast milk.

Your family can be exposed to this chemical if you use mothballs or if someone in your household smokes tobacco. There have been medical reports of babies who developed liver problems after being dressed in clothing that had been stored in naphthalene mothballs The PCRM recommends using other, non-chemical, methods to deal with moth and insect problems.

Styrene is a possible human carcinogen. Other toxic effects, such as neurotoxicity, have also been observed in humans. Styrene is used to make items such as rubber, plastic, insulation, food containers and carpet backing. You are most likely to be exposed to styrene by eating food that has been packed in polystyrene, drinking contaminated water, breathing contaminated air, or inhaling cigarette smoke.

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