Washington state can better protect people’s health by deliberately stepping up to the problem toxic chemicals in the environment, according to a new task force report provided to the Washington governor and Legislature.
The task force, organized by the Washington Department of Ecology, includes representatives from the world of business, government and public health. The new “white paper” calls for specific, creative actions to reduce potential harm caused by chemical exposures.
Howard Frumkin, dean of the School of Public Health at the University of Washington, served on the task force. He said worrisome health trends and rising health-care costs provide evidence of the problem. As he stated in a news release:
“We don’t know as much as we’d like about how toxic chemicals affect health, but we can’t wait. We need to act, and we need to do so in ways that are sensible, fair and evidence-based. I believe that our state can come together to identify and implement creative, effective solutions.”
Another member of the group, Sara Kendall, vice president for corporate affairs and sustainability at Weyerhaeuser Company, added:
“These issues are important, but they are also very complex. The white paper represents a good starting place for a more complete and thorough discussion by stakeholders.”
Because of the diverse membership on the committee, the overall conclusions seem to be derived more from common sense rather than from a desire to expand government oversight.
“Although we each individually have our preferences and concerns, across this suite of ideas we all share a belief that we, as a society, can do a better job reducing the adverse health, environmental and economic impacts of toxic chemicals,” states a letter accompanying the report.
Download the white paper, titled Toxics Policy Reform for Washington State (PDF 1.5 mb), or visit the Toxics Reduction Strategy Workgroup on the Washington Department of Ecology’s website.
Ecology’s new director, Maia Bellon, said:
“These proposed strategies come from knowledgeable experts working alongside the Department of Ecology. The idea now is to begin a broader conversation about how to build on our state’s past accomplishments to reduce toxic chemicals.”
The white paper contains 12 recommendations for dealing with toxic chemicals, including a proposed state policy that would say simply, “Safer is better.”
Task force members suggest setting up a “Green Chemistry Center” to identify or invent safer chemicals for specific purposes.
“Washington should become a national leader in green chemistry, making these innovations a trademark of the state, just like apples, wheat, software and airplanes,” the paper says.
The report calls for continuing state actions to reduce exposures to a list of priority chemicals and to add chemicals with toxic effects at very low doses, such as endocrine-disrupting compounds.
Chemical bans and restrictions may be necessary at times, the paper says, but such regulations “should not strand people or businesses by banning or restricting chemicals before safer alternatives are viable.”
The Legislature should consider exemptions when a chemical is absolutely needed for a process or product, the paper says. Still, an imminent public health threat might at times justify an outright ban before a safer alternative is identified.
Education campaigns and effective product labeling can help people take personal actions to reduce their exposure to toxic chemicals, the committee said.
As for why members of the task force feel strongly that Washington should not wait to address hazardous chemicals, let me quote from the report, which first discusses toxic effects on children:
“The developing nervous system is exquisitely sensitive to perturbation by chemicals and other insults. Environmental chemicals thought to be association with impaired brain development include lead, methyl mercury, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), manganese, organophosphate insecticides, arsenic, Bisphenol-A (BPA), PBDEs and phthalates.
“Autism and ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) appear to result from a complex interaction between genetics and environmental factors. In Washington state in 2010, more than 75,000 children — one in every 14 kids — ages 3-21 were receiving special education services through school districts for learning disability, emotional or behavioral disability, autism, intellectual disability or developmental delay….
“Adults also are impacted by exposures to toxic chemicals. Neurodegenerative diseases such as Parkinson’s disease and dementia are growing problems, and evidence suggests that chemical exposures may play a role. For example, pesticides, solvents, PCBs, PBDEs (polybrominated diphenyl ethers) and heavy metals such as lead and manganese have all been linked to an increased risk of Parkinson’s disease.
“There are troubling toxic releases to the environment as well. More than 1,700 water body segments in Washington are impaired due to high levels of toxic chemicals or metals. The Puget Sound Toxics Loading Assessment found that the vast majority of toxic chemicals in Puget Sound come from non-point sources and are released to Puget Sound through stormwater.”
Washington State Department of Health also weighs in on the effects of environmental chemicals on children, offering fact sheets on childhood asthma, cancer, learning and behavior, obesity, and reproductive systems:
“Young children often have higher exposure to environmental chemicals in the home because of their higher breathing rate and natural activity of mouthing or sucking on household objects and surfaces.
“There are critical periods during early childhood development when small exposures to toxic chemicals can have permanent negative effects. Without efforts to protect children during early life, lifelong health can be negatively impacted.”