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What's in that sippy cup? Toxin battle hits D.C.

  • Stroller Brigade demands tougher chemical regulation
  • Only a fraction of 80,000 approved chemicals are tested
  • New law faces uphill battle, resistance from Republicans and chemical industry
What's in that sippy cup? Toxin battle hits D.C.

You skip right past any children's toy, bottle or bowl that doesn't have a 'BPA Free' label.

You dutifully pay the extra 30-cents for a crisp, organic apple instead of feeding your family a conventional one grown with God-knows-what.

And when it's time to paint a room, you'd sooner keep the walls bare than use a non-low VOC paint.

You also hate cancer. And birth defects.

And that is why a "Stroller Brigade" swept across the nation's capitol today: Because while parents and millions of other Americans are expressing serious concern with their voices and wallets about harmful chemicals in everyday items, lawmakers have so far proven mostly reluctant to limit their use.

But with the Safe Chemicals Act of 2011 nearing closer to a vote in the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, this angry army of moms, dads, nurses, cancer survivors and lots and lots of children see a major opportunity to fix that.

Toxins judged as innocent until proven guilty

Under existing laws (which are based off legislation from back in 1976) virtually all chemicals are treated as innocent under proven guilty; flagged for tough safety testing only after evidence shows up indicating they could be dangerous. The Safe Chemicals Act would flip that, placing the burden of proof on chemical manufacturers to demonstrate their products are safe before they're released for public use.

The New York Times' Nicolas Kristof recently explained "I don’t think the public realizes that there are more than 80,000 chemicals in products all around us, and only a couple of hundred have been carefully tested for safety. If they’re proven unsafe, they’re withdrawn, but there’s no safety testing prior to using them."

"The problem with our current chemical system is that it makes people, it makes Americans, into guinea pigs," says Environment Illinois program director Max Mueller. "We are the test subjects on which the safety of chemicals is tested," he told Chicago's WJBC.

So the Stroller Brigade arrived on Capitol Hill today to hand over petitions packed with roughly 250,000 signatures demanding more testing and transparency about the chemicals that line baby bottles, coat kids' pajamas and keep our kitchens clean. They were met there by several democratic senators, including Safe Chemicals Act co-sponsors Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-New Jersey, and Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Illinois.

Durbin referenced the anti-smoking legislation he supported in the past and declared that "America changed because of that law. Now we need to do the same thing to protect these children and these families when it comes to toxic chemicals."

Right now, the legislation has only 18 co-sponsors and all of them are democrats, indicating a tough road ahead for those who seek the legislation's passage. "Without Republican support, it's pretty tough," said Lautenberg. "We can't go ahead without any."

Parents face tough opponents in chemical battle

Much of the resistance stems from the inability to prove without question a link between many of these toxins and the diseases they're suspected of either contributing to or causing. The FDA, for instance, has refused to ban BPA citing a lack of rock solid evidence. It should be noted the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel conducted a three-year investigation on BPA regulation, which found the FDA favored advice from scientists paid by the chemical industry. The American Chemistry Council has repeatedly denied accusations from scientists and public health groups that these products pose a health risk.

One writer at Cafe Mom's The Stir thinks things would be a bit different if some new voices were included in the debate. "If we could put a mom and a child in the same room every damn time a well-paid chemical industry lobbyist visited Capitol Hill, I think we'd be living in a very different world, don't you?" writes Adriana Velez.

Stroller Brigade organizers say they were also galvanized by a stunning recent investigation by the Chicago Tribune about flame retardants widely used on furniture and children's clothing. Reporters found evidence the tobacco and "chemical industry has manipulated scientific findings to promote the widespread use of flame retardants and downplay the health risks," which they list as "including cancer, developmental problems, neurological deficits and impaired fertility." Their research found that on top of being dangerous, the chemicals have also never been proven effective against fire.

Rolling through Washington today, Brigade attendees from across the country chanted, held signs with messages like "Safe chemicals = Healthy families" and "Health for the many supercedes wealth for the few" and stacked signed petitions inside empty strollers.

A committee vote on the Safe Chemicals Act could take place this fall.


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