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Amy Traub

The Cities Detox First

Late last week, the President’s Cancer Panel released a troubling new study (pdf) on the link between Americans’ chemical exposure and the risk of developing cancer. The panel found that “the true burden of environmentally induced cancer has been grossly underestimated. With nearly 80,000 chemicals on the market in the United States, many of which are used by millions of Americans in their daily lives and are un- or understudied and largely unregulated, exposure to potential environmental carcinogens is widespread.” Due to inadequate funding, weak and overly complex laws, overlapping regulatory jurisdictions, and excessive industry influence, federal chemical regulation is ineffective and Americans are exposed “grievous harm” from chemicals whose safety has never been ascertained.

The federal panel is right to call for more effective national regulation to protect public health. But many battles over harmful chemical exposure have already played out – and in some cases been won – at the city level in municipalities across the nation. Consider BPA, a chemical in many hard plastics (including baby bottles, water bottles, and the plastic lining inside cans) which has been repeatedly linked to breast cancer, obesity, and heart disease. When the feds finally act to protect Americans, they’ll be following on the heels of Chicago, which already banned the chemical in 2009. Austin, TX is one of several cities to outlaw pavement sealants containing coal tar, a source of suspected carcinogens. San Francisco banned phthalates, a chemical used to soften plastic, in toys for young children, leading to state and ultimately federal restrictions on the chemical which has been linked to alterations in hormones. Cities have also acted to ban pesticides which may pose a risk to human health.

The federal government must turn away from a reactionary approach to chemical regulation in which “a hazard must be incontrovertibly demonstrated before action to ameliorate it is initiated… [and] the public bears the burden of proving that a given environmental exposure is harmful.” For a more sane public health perspective, they can look to the cities.

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Posted at 2:23 PM, May 10, 2010 in Consumers | Public Health
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