Ensuring safe chemicals is a moral concern

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“Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for a fish, will give a snake instead of a fish? Or if the child asks for an egg, will give a scorpion?” (Luke: 11: 11-12)

In this rhetorical question, Jesus poses natural parental concern for a child’s welfare to illustrate God’s concern for us. God does not harm us by offering us poisonous substances. Unwittingly though, we do that to ourselves and each other through common products we buy and use to enhance our appearance or to make our lives easier and more comfortable, or so we think.

The chemicals in many of these products do not sting, bite or constrict us immediately, but negative health effects are nevertheless showing up in all of God’s creation, particularly the most vulnerable among us.

We believe our stewardship responsibilities require us to protect the Earth and its people from myriad unregulated chemicals in our nation.

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Congress enacted the Toxic Substance Control Act (TSCA) in 1976 in the aftermath of discoveries about unintended effects of pesticides and of the publication of Rachel Carson’s classic book, “Silent Spring,” published 14 years earlier.

TSCA allowed more than 60,000 chemicals to remain legal without any testing and dampened motivation for chemical manufacturers to research safer substitutes.

Correct information is a necessary ingredient for a chemical safety system to work, but TSCA allows manufacturers to withhold disclosure of chemicals in their formulas. According to the U.S. Government Accountability Office, today, of the more than 80,000 chemicals in use, only 200 have been tested.

TSCA is so weak only five classes of chemicals have been restricted or banned. The Environmental Protection Agency tried to use the law to ban asbestos 18 years ago but lost the battle in court. The EPA hasn’t tried to ban another toxic chemical since.

When industries are allowed to withhold information about ingredients of highly advertised products, as is now the case here in the USA, the public, assuming a product is safe, is at a distinct disadvantage to make competent choices.

TSCA is not working for the American people.

New technologies that test for contaminants in products and human bodies are detecting chemicals strongly associated with a growing prevalence of health conditions including, but not limited to, developmental disabilities, infertility, heart disease and cancer. These developments have drawn clearer associations between harmful chemicals and the disease process that sometimes takes decades to become apparent.

Cancer, once a disease of old age, has become more common among the young.

Meanwhile, chemical companies and their trade groups persist in their resistance to reform as surely as some of their chemicals persist and bioaccumulate in the environment. The “green chemistry” movement holds much promise in addressing these problems.

The Maine Council of Churches engaged people of faith in Maine to promote passage of the pioneering Kids Safe Products Act. We cannot fully protect Maine’s children, or any children, until we reform TSCA. Chemicals know no borders.

The Maine Council of Churches, in conjunction with the National Council of Churches, is encouraging the reform of TSCA from the social justice and faith perspective to protect the most vulnerable. Pregnant women, infants and children are particularly susceptible to endocrine-disrupting chemicals that have neurological, immune-suppressing and reproductive effects.

Low-income communities and communities of color oftentimes live in the vicinity of industrial sites that either legally or illegally release toxic emissions into air, water or soil. Low-income communities may also have access only to products rejected by an increasingly aware citizenry due to their economic circumstances.

It is imperative that our laws protect the individual and require that the information necessary to be a wise consumer is available. Health and safety must come before price and convenience. In this issue, as in so many other issues, scientific evidence informs us; morality challenges us to act on the knowledge.

It is our moral duty to hold chemical manufacturers accountable for the safety of products. Our God-given free will, exercised in a free country, demands our responsibility. Presently, we the people, acting through our governmental agencies, are required to prove that a product has caused harm. Rather, we need to urge the U.S. Congress to force chemical manufacturers to prove a product is safe and does not carry with it long-term consequences.

We urge the public to demand stronger product safety and refuse to purchase suspect products in the meantime.

Sr. Jacqueline Moreau, RSM, is a member of Earth Sisters Maine.

Sally Chappell is the environmental health and toxics consultant for the Maine Council of Churches.

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