The following is an opinion article submitted by Susan Tullai-McGuinness, PhD, RN. Susan is an assistant professor in the School of Nursing at Case Western Reserve University, past chair of the American
Nurses Association Congress of Nursing Practice & Economics and sits on the Ohio Nurses Association Health Policy Committee. She lives in
Painesville, Ohio with her husband and has 13 grandchildren.
Sometimes, the small things you do in life can have enormous consequences. Take my aunt, for example. Her husband worked at a plant that made glass,
and as a plumber, he was exposed to asbestos. My aunt would shake out his work clothes in the basement before putting them in the wash. No one told her
that by breathing in these asbestos fibers, she could be putting her health at risk. She died of mesothelioma cancer not too long ago.
This story is a common one—there are several elderly women in my hometown who have developed mesothelioma for the same reason. The story of asbestos is
an example of the failure of our nation’s chemical regulation policy. The sad fact is that our federal law regulating toxic chemicals, the Toxic
Substances Control Act (TSCA) hasn’t been updated since 1976, and it’s hopelessly outdated. It’s so weak that the EPA tried to use the law to ban
asbestos 18 years ago, but it lost the battle in court. It hasn’t tried to ban another toxic chemical since.
Scientific evidence is piling up, showing linkages between chemicals that we use every day in consumer products and increased risk of chronic
disease—such as asthma, reproductive disorders, leukemia and learning disabilities, all of which are on the rise.
As a nurse, I have been working hard to educate nursing students about the impacts these chemicals can have on our health. It’s not enough to simply
treat specific diseases and conditions. Rather, it’s up to us to explore the ways disease-causing chemicals can pass from the environment into the
patient’s body, to get a more comprehensive, big picture view into what is causing these diseases.
Exploring the causes of serious diseases leads us down the road to prevention—which is an extremely effective and economical way to reduce the disease
burden that is plaguing our nation’s health care system. A recent study by the Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families coalition examined the health costs of
ignoring much-needed toxic chemical regulatory reform. It concluded that smart, common sense reform will reduce the economic, social and personal costs
of chronic disease. These costs are not only financial. They include the cost of raising a child with a severe learning disability, or coping with a
breast cancer diagnosis as a young mother.
Although we need a lot more scientific research on the linkages between disease and chemicals, we do know this: these chemicals are in all of us, and
more are being introduced to our bodies every day. We also know that the timing of these chemical exposures is critical. If a chemical interferes with
the body’s system during a critical point of development—for example, during a fetus’s eighth month in the womb—the consequences can be severe.
That’s why I support the new legislation introduced by Senator Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) and Rep. Bobby Rush (D-IL). Both the Senate bill (the Safe Chemicals Act) and the House discussion draft will provide common sense safeguards on toxic chemicals, moving the country away from known toxic chemicals (like asbestos) and evaluating the rest for safety. Since our largest trading partner — the European Union — has already started down this road, getting our own house in order will also better prepare the nation’s chemical industry for a world market place that’s increasingly demanding safer chemicals and products.
If you agree that chemicals sold in the U.S. need to have more scrutiny — so they’re tested for safety before they hit store shelves— join me in encouraging Congress to pass the strongest versions of the proposed legislation.