Toxic Chemicals Legislation, Minorities and the Environment Discussed At Conference

The impact of toxic chemicals on the most vulnerable individuals -- fetuses, children, and people living in poor communities -- was highlighted at last week's Rachel Carson Legacy Conference. The Allegheny Front's Jennifer Szweda Jordan reports.

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OPEN: The impact of toxic chemicals on the most vulnerable individuals -- fetuses, children, and people living in poor communities -- was highlighted at last week's Rachel Carson Legacy Conference. The Allegheny Front's Jennifer Szweda Jordan reports.

INTRO: Chemicals that mimic hormones -- also known as endocrine disruptors -- are everywhere. They're likely used in the microphone I'm talking into, the speakers you're listening over, and most of the consumer products we touch every day. For children, some say that can be especially perilous because high levels of the chemicals can lead to obesity even when babies are in utero. They also can disturb youngsters' growth in other ways. The Environmental Working Group calls for protecting children by updating what they say is the one of weakest environmental laws on the books -- the Toxic Substances Act of 1976. The organization's president, Ken Cook, made this case before a Pittsburgh audience.

COOK: Very little testing is done that's publicly available and none is required under law for new chemicals to come on the market. People are shocked to hear that. For pesticides, we require up to 120 safety studies. For industrial chemicals that we encounter every day also, there is no such requirement in federal law.

JORDAN: But, Cook says, the public and federal legislators have a growing awareness of these problems, so there's momentum to retool the Toxic Substances Control Act. The Obama Administration just announced it wants to overhaul TSCA and strenghten EPA's chemical management plan. New legislation to is expected to be introduced soon into Congress.

COOK: What we're looking at now, I think nationally, is the prospect that Congress will step in and say, 'We need some new rules of the road, to help companies understand that when we say something needs to be safer, here's what we mean, here are the criteria you'd have to meet,' and unleash the ability of our scientific community, our engineers, to aim for safer as well as cheaper solutions to aim for some of these materials problems.

JORDAN: Cook says that there are some products on the market that offer more protection for children in terms of chemical exposure, but that buying them requires the consumer to do a lot of work. Cook is a parent of a toddler himself who says that parents have enough on their minds and should be able to trust the government to keep children safe. The Environmental Working Group is lobbying for a piece of legislation called the Kid-Safe Chemicals Act that would require that chemicals be proven safe before they can be sold.

Another speaker at the Rachel Carson conference also was concerned about keeping people safe -- and prosperous -- especially people of color in poor communities. Jerome Ringo admitted that he spent dozens of years working in the petro-chemical industry in Louisiana, dumping toxic waste near minority neighborhoods, until he, an African-American, couldn't sleep at night.

RINGO: Growing up in Louisiana in the shadows of the petrochemical industry and working in that industry to crossing that fence and working with the environmental community.. is quite a journey. Now I guess I've come full circle but there's still yet so much to be done.

JORDAN: Ringo is now president of the Apollo Alliance. The organization got its name because Apollo would like to see an effort as ambitious as a lunar landing to kick off what they call a clean energy revolution offering green jobs to Americans. He said one way to get this so-called revolution off the ground is through state renewable energy portfolio regulations.

RINGO: I would hope the legislatures and governors would revisit those standards to make sure that when the pie is cut that a certain amount of money is going to go into those states where it should, but to make sure some of that money goes into education, or to help create that pathway out of poverty.

JORDAN: Ringo also wants to see that environmental education leads to more people of color enjoying the environment and getting green jobs.

JORDAN: While the Rachel Carson conference was practically eclipsed by the G20 Summit happening in Pittsburgh, both Cook and Ringo said it's become one of the most important gatherings of national environmental voices.

For The Allegheny Front, Iím Jennifer Szweda Jordan.