Expert: New toxic chemicals report “unprecedented”

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In a new report, the President’s Cancer Panel emphatically reinforced what public health officials and activists have been saying for decades: Toxic chemicals in the environment are killing people.

Scolding regulators for taking a reactionary rather than a precautionary approach, the panel, attached to the National Institutes of Health, noted that only a few hundred of the 80,000 chemicals used in the United States have been tested for safety. In 2009, the panel said, about 1.5 million Americans were diagnosed with cancer and 562,000 died of the disease. “The incidence of some cancers, including some most common among children, is increasing for unexplained reasons,” the panel reported on Thursday, and environmental exposures may be to blame.

Among the panel’s findings:

  • Chemical regulation has been hampered by weak laws, undue industry influence, excessively complex rules and uneven enforcement.
  • Research on environmental causes of cancer “has been limited by low priority and limited funding.”
  • The “true burden of environmentally induced cancer has been grossly underestimated.”

Richard Clapp, a professor of environmental health at Boston University, said the significance of the report cannot be overstated. “For the President’s Cancer Panel to take as strong a position as it has on both occupational and environmental causes of cancer is unprecedented,” Clapp said. The report comes on the heels of legislation in the Senate and the House to reform the Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976 (TSCA), widely considered to be ineffective.

In coming months, the Center for Public Integrity will publish stories on the deadly effects of chemicals in the workplace and the environment. The stories will focus on the failings of the primary regulators -- the Environmental Protection Agency and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration -- and highlight industries and companies that put workers and the general public at risk.

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