May is a month focused on women—the month started out with Mother's Day, and the week of May 8 is National Women's Health week, established to empower women to make their health a top priority.
Toxic chemicals are an increasingly important topic with women's health—too much chemical exposure at the beginning of life, or during pregnancy, can cause adverse health effects for women and for their children.
This month, we are featuring women heroes: women who are strong advocates for reducing exposure to toxic chemicals. Three of the women are legislators, and one is a scientist. They are tied together in the hard work that they are doing in their field to make our world and our homes safer from toxic chemicals.
In choosing these women, it was overwhelmingly clear that it's possible to come from very different backgrounds and agendas and reach the same conclusion: that stronger policies to reduce exposure to harmful chemicals are necessary on a state and federal level, with bi-partisan support to protect the health of our families and the most vulnerable populations in our society.
Michele Reinhart, Montana State House of Representatives
"Montana has been uniquely impacted by weak chemical safety laws."
Rep. Michele Reinhart grew up in Livingston, Montana, a small town in the southwestern part of the state with residents who largely focus on the outdoors. "Montanans have more awareness of toxics issues because we've had a long history of pollution in this state," says Reinhart. She has been aware of environmental toxins within her own family since a young age.
Rep. Reinhart's hometown of Livingston has been identified as a superfund site1 by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) due to ground water and soil contamination caused by Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad Company and its practices associated with railroad waste-treatment, storage and disposal practices. The ground water has high levels of Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs), and residents in the area have been found to have higher than average incidences of pancreatic cancer.
And this isn't the only example of environmental contamination in Rep. Reinhart's life. Her grandfather died of asbestos-related disease, one of hundreds of people who have died the same way over several decades in the Libby, Montana area. The asbestos contaminated many in Libby due to mining during the 20th century for vermiculite, a mineral used in insulation that was contaminated with asbestos.
This history, and Rep. Reinhart's general concern for a safe and healthy Montana, led her to lead the charge in a state resolution supporting congressional reform of the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA). TSCA is the decades-old federal law which is meant to oversee chemical use for consumer products, and pretty much all products in our lives. The law is hopelessly outdated and ineffective. Were stronger laws in place during the time of the Libby and Livingston contamination, it is possible that these environmental disasters could have been avoided.
The bill died in committee; however, Rep. Reinhart raised the important discussion of toxic chemical legislation in the Montana legislature.
During a recent interview, Rep. Reinhart spoke of the hard work that Montana health advocacy group Women's Voices for the Earth (WVE) is doing.
"WVE is doing a great job of raising awareness. Everyday products have nasty stuff in them, and more work and awareness is needed. We have a right to know what types of toxics are in our products. I really commend Women's Voices for the Earth for the work that they are doing."
Senator Diane Rosenbaum, Oregon State Senate Majority Leader
"It's a small, simple step we can take with long-term results."
Senate Majority Leader Diane Rosenbaum has a proven history of considering the issues facing Oregonian women through her career. She is the co-chair of the Oregon Women's Health & Wellness Alliance , which is an association of legislators, lobbyists and community organizers who collaborate to reform laws which specifically affect women.
One of the top 10 priorities for the Women's Health & Wellness Alliance this year is the passage of a bisphenol-A (BPA) ban in Oregon.
Oregon Senate Bill 695 is making its way through the legislature—it has passed through the Senate and is currently stalled in the House. The bill will ban BPA from food and beverage containers intended for children under the age of 3 (e.g., sippy cups, baby bottles and reusable water bottles), and will also cover the removal of BPA from infant formula cans that are funded by the Oregon Women Infants and Children (WIC) program. BPA-lined formula cans are prevalent, and BPA leaches into formula2 and gets into the bodies of babies, making them more susceptible to health effects like endocrine disruption, behavioral impacts, and issues with reproductive development.
While BPA has been removed from many baby bottles and sippy cups voluntarily by companies, Senator Rosenbaum sees the law banning BPA as an environmental justice issue. "I care a lot about how things affect low income families, and [BPA-free bottles] aren't available to rural and low income areas."
SB 695 passed through the Senate in April 2011 with a large bi-partisan vote. The BPA bill "shouldn't be a partisan issue. This is about the health of our kids in particular and everybody in general and about the future," says Senator Rosenbaum.
Building bi-partisan support for a bill banning BPA involved a concerted effort by bill sponsors and supporters. Senator Rosenbaum says that Senate Republicans Jason Atkinson and Brian Boquist, both sponsors of the bill, were real leaders in the bill's passage through the senate.
Passing a bi-partisan bill involved building a broad-based coalition, building awareness in the public, involving advocacy groups and garnering support via community meetings and town halls. Senator Rosenbaum advises that other states looking to pass a similar ban should "be willing to compromise, as always. There could always be a stronger bill, there could always be more products included. It's important to start with what's politically achievable," Senator Rosenbaum says.
Dr. Gail Prins, leading bisphenol-A scientist
"It's very disconcerting what we're being exposed to through our products."
Dr. Gail Prins, a reproductive physiologist at the University of Illinois at Chicago, is one of the leading scientists in the country who is studying BPA and its effects on health. Her work is tying BPA exposure early in life to later susceptibility to health issues. BPA is an endocrine disruptor, which means that it can mimic a hormone and trick the body into thinking that it is getting a large dose of things like estrogen.
"If we expose rats to our levels of bisphenol-A during the period when our prostate gland is developing, they are more sensitive to prostate cancer development. We find that an imprint is put down on some of the genes. We call it memory. Later in life, when [the gene] is exposed to elevated estrogen again, it can drive prostate cancer."
One in 6 men who are born today will be diagnosed with prostate cancer at some point in their lifetime3. While most who are diagnosed with prostate cancer survive, its prevalence means a large impact in the U.S. economy and health care system.
As a result of her research, Dr. Prins recommends that, especially early in life when the prostate is being developed, we reduce levels of BPA as much as possible. "Several years back, I wasn't as aware of the level that you can reduce your own body burden of bisphenol-A," says Dr. Prins. A recent study by the Breast Cancer Fund and the Silent Spring Institute found that families were able to lower their BPA exposure by 60% within three days by eating fresh food over canned food, and avoiding BPA in all food applications4.
Dr. Prins' home state of Illinois took on a TSCA resolution similar to Montana's which would encourage the Illinois federal delegation to pass a strong national toxic chemicals law. Illinois' resolution passed unanimously in both the State House and the State Senate. It is largely assumed that TSCA reform would put some restrictions on BPA in the consumer stream, as the current bill proposal would target the worst-of-the-worst chemicals and give the EPA power to move against these chemicals, getting them out of our households in favor of safer alternatives.
Senator Katherine Clark, Massachusetts State Senate
"This type of legislation should not be a political issue."
Massachusetts State Senator Katherine Clark is a leader in her state who is co-sponsoring the Safer Alternatives bill this session which would replace toxic chemicals like BPA with safer alternatives when feasible. Katherine is helping to lead the charge for the legislation and has emerged as a true champion of environmental health.
"As a mother of three boys, I have been concerned about some of the toxic chemicals found in products we use every day that pose an increasing risk to the health of our children and families," says Senator Clark5.
Senator Clark says that parents in general are concerned about the chemicals their children are exposed to, noting health problems such as cancer, learning disabilities and chronic diseases and disorders including asthma, birth defects, diabetes, endometriosis, infertility, and Parkinson's disease which have been tied to the increased use of toxic chemicals in our everyday products.
"Across the nation, legislators, parents and environmentalists are asking for common sense limits on toxic chemicals and requiring that chemicals be tested for safety before they end up in the products we can purchase at our corner stores. We need a renewed focus to ensure that all chemicals in our lives are safe for the most vulnerable among us."
Both Senator Clark and Senator Rosenbaum spoke of the increased interest in toxic chemical reform by their constituents. While topics like the economy and jobs are top-of-mind for most voters, they are starting to ask their legislators pointed questions about the safety of toxic chemicals in their homes.
Senator Clark says, "I talk to moms who strongly support legislation that would cut down on the number of toxic chemicals in common household products. I think we need to continue to work to raise awareness in our communities about this issue and the legislative solutions that will improve lives throughout Massachusetts and the country."
Bills such as the Safer Alternatives Bill should not come down to partisan politics, says Senator Clark. "This type of legislation should not be a political issue. It is an issue about our health and the health of our children. I hope my fellow legislators can come together in support of legislation that will help protect the public health."
Please check the Safer States website next month, when we will be featuring men heroes—dads, grandparents and legislators who are working hard to be advocates for a safe and healthy environment.
1Burlington Northern-Livingston Superfund Site. Environmental Protection Agency
2Guide to Infant Formula and Baby Bottles. Environmental Working Group, December 2007.
3Prostate Cancer Fact Sheet. National Cancer Institute
4BPA in Food Packaging Study. Breast Cancer Fund, March 2011.
5Finding safer alternatives to keep us all safe. Stoneham Sun, May 2011.