The Environment

Understanding the Toxic Chemical Gap

June 22, 2017  • Michael Dorsey

Michael Dorsey is a co-founding Director of the Center for Environmental Health. He is a featured speaker at Spotlight Health.

Why was the Center for Environmental Health founded? What is the CEH working on now?

At the Center for Environmental Health (CEH), we work every day to protect your children and family from toxic chemicals that cause learning disabilities, cancer, and many other health problems. Over the last 20 years the Center for Environmental Health has fundamentally sought to change the way companies do business and reform and reshape how regulators protect us, in order to make every American family safer.

From cities to national parks, there are thousands of ways that man-made chemicals are invading our most sacred places.
How can access to nature, from cities to national parks, have an impact on someone’s health?

Sadly, even in nature, from cities to national parks, there are thousands of ways that man-made chemicals are invading our most sacred places, from our rivers, to the most remote wilderness areas to the purest air we might think we are breathing —including human physiology itself. We live in a world where it has become impossible to live a “natural” life. Our bodies are assaulted by thousands of chemicals on a daily basis, without our permission. There is also a huge gap between those who can choose to avoid toxic chemicals and those who have no choice. This gap falls along racial and socioeconomic lines. Indeed even in “nature” we are subject to chemical trespass — in ways that are systematically worse for lower income communities of color. For example:

  • Farm workers who handle pesticides are more heavily Latino.
  • Communities who live next to chemical and petrochemical facilities are more likely to be people of color, as the US EPA has shown over the past 20 years; and disturbingly major catastrophic chemical releases occur in these communities. Scholars have shown this over and over again. Flint is just the most recent example.
  • Lower income communities have access primarily to low-end, cheaply produced items. For example, their best retail option may likely be a dollar store, which is known to carry canned foods with a chemical toxin that has been phased out in other, higher-end chains. This holds true again and again when it comes to personal care products, kids’ toys, and household necessities.
What is preventing political consensus on protecting the environment and shielding the population from harmful chemicals? How can politicians find common ground?

To change this, we need a cultural shift that demands institutions, both government and corporate, choose our health over profit. And they must be held deeply accountable when they fail to do so. Politicians at times find common ground, as few want to be labeled the polluter-in-chief. Simultaneously it’s important for everyone to engage their elected officials. That’s why we’ve pushed for over 20 years for rules that actually protect your family by requiring companies to test their chemicals for safety, disclose their results, and use the safest chemicals available.

How can an individual navigate the effects of environmental chemicals on their health? What resources are available for people to figure out what’s safe to use?

One individual alone will never be enough. Our strength is in collaboration, so teams are key — even small ones. We can also work across six key areas, all of which you can work on with us. They are:

Science: We’re science geeks.  We devour the latest, most reliable studies and use them to guide our search for latest-known toxic threats.  We’ve also pioneered the use of cutting-edge technologies to scour the marketplace for products that expose your family to these hidden toxic chemicals. We have identified and exposed thousands of toxic products and business practices over the years.

Courts: We aren’t afraid to use the proverbial “stick” of litigation. Accordingly, we’ve taken powerful, multinational businesses to court to force them to get lead, arsenic, and other toxic chemicals out of your family’s air, water, and essential products. Today, hundreds of millions of children and families around the world are safer because of our many, far-reaching legal victories.

We need a cultural shift that demands institutions, both government and corporate, choose our health over profit.

Lawmakers: After our legal action forced jewelry makers and retailers to end lead threats from children’s jewelry, we wrote and passed the law that made the entire industry protect kids. Sadly, important laws like this only address one toxic chemical at a time. That’s why we work across all tiers of government. We advised New York City on how to implement new purchasing rules: to phase out polyvinyl chloride (PVC) plastics in PVC containing products. PVC is a major source of chlorinated dioxin, and when PVC-laden products are discarded (and often burned), highly toxic dioxins are released, posing serious health and environmental threats. We’ve also worked with the California State Water Board to prohibit the use of oil wastewater for crop irrigation in California.

The Center for Environmental Health is leading the nationwide effort that is pushing the government to improve its approach to regulating all chemicals.  The current rules allow companies to expose your family to chemicals without demonstrating that those chemicals are safe. We’re pushing for rules that actually protect your family by requiring companies to test their chemicals for safety, disclose their results, and use the safest chemicals available. We believe it is time to stop allowing chemicals to be “innocent until proven guilty” — or deadly.

Markets and firms: Big companies buy lots of stuff, and their purchasing choices move entire markets. We partner with responsible businesses –and encourage the irresponsible ones to be more responsible. We’ve shown firms, over and over again, how to demand products that are safer from production to use to disposal. Because of strategically created demand, suppliers have more incentives to adopt safer practices and design safer products. Using the power of the marketplace, the Center for Environmental Health is flipping industries’ traditional race to the bottom. This is part of our blueprint for changing our economy and protecting your family’s health.

Local communities: The environmental health movement’s strongest advocates are those who face the worst threats from toxics.  That’s why we support the leadership of grassroots organizations in low-income communities of color, helping to connect brave leaders with the latest scientific and public health resources available and supporting communities’ efforts to address the environmental justice threats that matter most to them.

Families: With regular national media coverage, we ensure that families nationwide hear about the threat of undercover toxics.  We also give parents — and grandparents, and aunties and uncles — information that helps them protect their families from toxic chemicals.  And with our finger on the pulse of the environmental health movement, we know when there’s a strategic opportunity to push decision makers in big business and the government.  That’s when we rally moms and dads to demand decisions that protect families from toxic chemicals.

The views and opinions of the author are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Aspen Institute.

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