The Democratic debate Sunday and the presidential primaries on Tuesday are shining a much needed light on Flint, Mich., where thousands of families were exposed to lead in their water and where officials ignored the problem for more than a year. But I know from personal experience that Flint is just the latest chapter in a history of water contamination in the U.S. We need better regulations to protect my children, and all Americans, from toxic exposures.
I grew up in a small town in Ohio, near the banks of the Ohio River, where I spent my childhood and early adulthood drinking water that had been contaminated for several generations with C8, a chemical made by DuPont chemical company.
C8 was used in the production of Teflon until 2014, when DuPont stopped producing it as part of an agreement with the Environmental Protection Agency. Hundreds of thousands of people rely on the Ohio River for their drinking water; C8, also known as PFOA, is found in those waters as well as in food packaging, cookware and other consumer products.
And it’s found in me. My health records and those of others in my community helped establish the links between C8 exposure and kidney cancer, testicular cancer, thyroid disease, pre-eclampsia, certain birth defects and other diseases.
That’s why I was relieved to learn that in late December, the Senate voted to pass the Frank R. Lautenberg Chemical Safety for the 21st Century Act, a long overdue update of the 1976 Toxic Substances Control Act. The Lautenberg Act gives the EPA new powers to study and regulate C8 and other harmful chemicals such as asbestos, which kills about 10,000 Americans every year.
Under the new act, the EPA would be required to regulate chemicals on the basis of health impacts, instead of on the costs to industry. The act would replace the Toxic Substances Control Act, a regulation so weak that the EPA has been powerless to restrict everyday chemicals linked to cancer, infertility, diabetes, thyroid disease, high blood pressure and many other illnesses.
I know something about how powerless the old act is. Even after my community was studied for 10 years—even after our health records linked C8 to several cancers, other serious diseases and birth defects—the EPA’s hands were tied. The agency was not able to do anything more than recommend that DuPont voluntarily phase out C8.
When I was pregnant with my twin daughters, I had preeclampsia. Was it related to my exposure to C8? I will never know. I do know that C8 can cross the placenta, and that my daughters therefore may have been exposed to the toxic chemical in utero. C8 very likely was just one of dozens of industrial chemicals they were exposed to. American babies are born with an average of more than 200 chemicals in their bodies, according to one study. Most of these chemicals have never been tested for toxicity in adults.
As the bipartisan Senate bill gets conferenced with a similar, but less comprehensive, bill in the House, I have a message to my lawmakers: We are counting on you to give us a law that protects our families from toxic exposures. Strengthening this dangerously outdated and inadequate law will save lives.