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Juliana Bilowich: Maryland’s chemical protections

The morning before my mom told me she had breast cancer, we went shoe shopping to pick out sandals for the coming summer. I stared down at those sandals as she told me the news, and because I didn’t dare ask my first question – how long until it gets bad – I asked my second question: How did this happen?

Looking for something to blame, I dove into research. To my surprise, I quickly learned that on a daily basis, we are all unknowingly bombarded with cancer-causing chemicals, and the laws set out to protect us fall alarmingly short.

This March, for example, a new report shared evidence of Bisphenol A in the lids and linings of food cans, including cans sold in Maryland. As an endocrine-disrupting chemical, BPA has been linked specifically to breast cancer and other severe health issues. Pressed by the public to eliminate the chemical, some companies are instead using substitutes like vinyl chloride – itself a known carcinogen – to line the cans that store our food. Although critics say the parts per million may be too low to have an effect, a CDC study found BPA in the urine of most Americans tested – meaning, the chemical is almost constantly in our bodies due to chronic exposure.

BPA is just one of the hazardous chemicals found all around us: We are exposed to phthalates in hundreds of products sold across the country, from plastics to perfumes; we are exposed to toxic flame retardants in furniture and electronics; we are exposed to formaldehyde-releasing chemicals in many of our shampoos and bubble baths.

How safe are these chemicals?

My first response mirrored that of most people I know: This level of toxicity can’t be possible. If a chemical is found in products we use every day, it is certainly safe. Right?

As it turns out, there is often no way to tell. Our national chemical safety law, the Toxic Substances Control Act, was enacted in 1976 and is so weak that of the 80,000 chemicals on the market, less than 2 percent have been tested for safety. Of those screened, more than 1,400 chemicals still in use today have known or probable links to cancer, asthma, developmental disorders, reproductive problems, and other health issues. In other words, the law has utterly failed us and our families.

In the absence of federal action, states have led the fight against toxic chemical exposure. In recent years, Maryland has regulated six dangerous chemicals: After leading the country in banning BPA from baby bottles and sippy cups, Maryland restricted heavy metals like cadmium and lead as well as toxic flame retardants in baby products.

California, Maine, and Washington have gone even further by requiring companies to disclose the use of dozens of chemicals of concern. Although the chemical industry fought these reforms, advocates and elected officials have made progress to protect public health.

Even Congress knows the national TSCA law needs reform. Last December, in a rare show of congressional productivity, the TSCA Modernization Act was voted through Congress, and it is now on the verge of becoming law. But hold your applause: While the reforms take some steps to help ensure more chemicals are sufficiently studied and regulated, the chemical industry pushed to include language that would effectively halt state-level toxic chemical protection.

In some ways, the reforms are an improvement over the old law, but since the new TSCA law falls short of protecting Marylanders from chemical exposure, it certainly shouldn’t stand in the way of our states, as a “laboratory of democracy,” to do so.

Our legislators can still fix the ‘pre-emption’ language before the new version of TSCA becomes law. Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md., and state Attorney General Brian E. Frosh have shown great leadership in fighting the proposed pre-emption measures while pushing for stronger chemical protections. Who else in our congressional delegation will stand up to the chemical industry to help protect us from dangerous chemical exposure? The decision our representatives reach will have an immeasurable impact on every Marylander.

For my family, the Tamoxifen treatments became part of daily routine, and remission came quickly. In fact, thanks to medical advancements, roughly 80 percent of women now survive breast cancer – but how do we do better than survive? How do we beat cancer?

It’s not enough to try to cure cancer or to detect it early; instead, we need to protect ourselves from it in the first place. My one question remains: How long until it really gets bad?

Juliana Bilowich is a public health organizer with Maryland PIRG.