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America’s most wanted toxic chemicals: PBTs

One of the least-known casualties of the recent East Coast Snowmaggedon was a cancelled Congressional hearing called by Congressman Bobby Rush to focus on Persistent, Bioaccumulative Toxins (or PBTs). We hope it’s rescheduled soon because, for those advocating for chemical policy reform, PBTs are the equivalent of the FBI’s Most Wanted list.

Congress is expected to introduce a toxic chemical reform bill soon. How it deals with PBTs will say a lot about whether it’s a serious enough proposal to get the job done.

What makes these chemicals so special? Here’s a primer: “persistent” means that these chemicals don’t break down in the environment. They last for a very long time and can travel long distances in the air or ocean currents. “Bioaccumulative” means that they build up in the food chain, often settling in fatty tissue like breast milk. “Toxic” means… well, if you’re on this site, you probably already know what “toxic” means.

[pullquote]/ PBTs do not simply persist and accumulate: they cause harm. A growing body of scientific evidence links PBTs to a wide range of serious human health problems, including early onset of puberty, infertility, endocrine disruption, learning disabilities, behavioral disorders, and certain cancers./[/pullquote]

Put these things together and you have a recipe for nearly intractable environmental and public health damage. The chemical family of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) presents a perfect example. Decades ago, the General Electric Corporation gained infamy by dumping PCBs in the Hudson River. At the time, PCBs were widely used in electronic insulation. In fact it was outrage over PCBs that spurred Congress to pass of the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) in 1976. TSCA explicitly banned PCBs, in what turned out to be its only significant accomplishment. And yet, in spite of being banned from commerce in the United States since 1976, PCBs are still widely found in the bodies of average Americans, according to the last Center for Disease Control and Prevention report on human exposure. The federal government is still spending millions of dollars to clean up PCB hotspots like the Hudson River. PCBs are even showing up in the bodies of polar bears – who hardly needed another problem.

The point isn’t that banning PCBs was pointless. Thanks to steady if very slow degradation, PCB levels today are substantially lower than they would have been without the ban, and much damage to human health and the environment has been averted as a result. The real point is that even the single-most decisive action the federal government has taken against a chemical proved to be, in many ways, too late to avert major damage. PCBs are still with us three decades after they were banned, because the chemicals persist and build up in the food chain.

The bad news is that there are several other chemicals in commerce today that are also PBT, including lead, mercury, brominated flame retardants, and perfluorinated compounds (like PFOA used to make Teflon). That’s why, at the bottom of this post, I will be asking you to contact your member of Congress.

The good news is that most of the world has come to understand that PBTs deserve special recognition in chemical policy; not the gold star of achievement, but an honored spot in the Chemical Hall of Shame. The Stockholm Convention on the Persistent Organic Pollutants identifies PBTs for phase-out and includes 152 countries. President George W. Bush — not known for his international environmental cooperation — actually signed this treaty in 2001 (though he didn’t follow through on ratification). Several companies, including SC Johnson, Kaiser Permanente, and Staples have enacted chemical policies to identify and weed out PBTs from their supply chain. Washington State launched a program to identify and eliminate PBTs from commerce within its borders and Maine just added them to the class of chemicals that should not be allowed in children’s products. The U.S. is committed to phasing PBTs out of the Great Lakes as part of an agreement with Canada

[pullquote]/ The Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families coalition believes it should be a no-brainer for Congress to treat PBTs as special when it reforms the Toxic Substances Control Act. Chemicals that meet the criteria of PBT — and for which there is some evidence  of exposure in the U.S. — should be put on the path to phase-out. /[/pullquote] Critical uses for defense or some life-saving purpose should be retained, but with an effort made to find safer alternatives.

Unfortunately, even no-brainer ideas have run into trouble recently, thanks to chemical industry lobbyists.

We are asking you to write to your member of Congress to tell them that real TSCA reform must include taking immediate action to phase nonessential uses of PBT chemicals out of commerce.

Stay tuned for more blogs explaining the difference between the kind of reform called for by the health care providers, parents, scientists, and environmental health advocates represented by the Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families coalition, and the faux reform supported by the chemical industry.

Get the facts from Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families