It seems we all know a young person struggling with the disease, but is cancer really more common among today’s youth? Statistics say yes. In the last 30 years cancer incidence in adolescents and young adults has increased more than in any other age group. At the same time, legislation to protect us from chemicals known to cause cancer has remained unchanged and inept.
In 1976, Congress created the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA). The goal of TSCA was to allow the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to determine whether commercial chemicals pose a risk to our health and to protect us from the most dangerous toxins.
By all accounts, TSCA has completely failed to protect Americans. Nearly none of the more than 80,000 chemicals used to produce everything from shampoo and sunscreen to baby bottles and carpeting have been fully tested for their impact on human health. In fact, since the law’s inception the EPA has been allowed to test a mere 200 chemicals and has placed restrictions on only five. Even asbestos, a toxic fiber known to cause a number of deadly lung diseases, cannot be banned under current law.
Despite industry’s acknowledgement of a need for change, the chemical lobby continues to spend record amounts in an effort to derail effective reform.
For that reason, we continue to live awash in unregulated chemicals of unknown safety. Numerous studies identify hundreds of synthetic chemicals pumping through our bloodstreams. These same chemicals pass from mother to child through the umbilical cord and through breast milk. They can derail our bodies’ normal development during critical periods of growth, causing cancer and other illnesses. Children and adolescents are particularly vulnerable.
The chemical industry argues that the fault is not entirely theirs. In fact, linking any single cancer diagnosis to a single chemical exposure is nearly impossible. Scores of unregulated chemicals enter our bloodstream daily and once initiated, cancer can take decades to develop.
Furthermore, environmental exposures are just one of a number of possible causes of cancer. Lifestyle choices and genetics also increase our cancer risk. Yet, experts agree that increases in diagnoses cannot be attributed solely to poor habits and flawed DNA and that current legislation does nothing to address growing concerns about the connections between cancer and chemical exposures.
Under TSCA, the EPA — not industry — must prove that a chemical is harmful. Confirming beyond a shadow of a doubt that a particular chemical causes cancer or other illnesses, is often a hopeless pursuit. A fact industry uses to prevent the enactment of meaningful reform.
Instead chemicals enter the marketplace without adequate testing and often only the illnesses of scores of citizens and public outcry result in change. And so, while other countries enact laws to protect their citizens from harmful chemicals, Americans continue to live as lab rats.
Perhaps the fault is ours as consumers. When we purchase products without knowing how they will affect our health, we create a market for unregulated chemicals. Informed customers that demand healthier products are certainly part of the solution, but becoming a smarter shopper is more difficult than it seems.
Proprietary laws protect industry secrets not human health. Check the beauty products that fill your bathroom drawers or the cleaning solutions under your kitchen sink. Ingredients labels are non-existent or incomplete.
Industry is not required to disclose the chemicals used in our household products. Reducing the chemicals in our bodies requires more than just smarter shopping.
Those of us tired of yet another cancer tragedy must inform ourselves, get involved and tell our stories. National and local organizations like Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families and the Michigan Network for Children’s Environmental Health are working toward meaningful reform of current chemical policy, reform that truly protects the most vulnerable among us. They welcome the participation of concerned citizens.
Julius Caesar, in Shakespeare’s famous play, told Brutus that the fault is “NOT in our stars, but in ourselves.” It’s true.
The fault is NOT in our stars, neither are we helpless to enact change.
Polly Schlaff is a teacher and resident of Manistee who became concerned about the link between environmental exposures and cancer when her late husband, a former MHS guidance counselor, was diagnosed at the age of 33 with a rare and non-genetic form of cancer. Since his death, she has spoken at press conferences in both Lansing and Washington D.C. and has published pieces on chemical reform for both state and national organizations. You can reach Schlaff at firstname.lastname@example.org.