Toxic Chemicals, Slow Legislation: Why the US Needs Stricter Environmental Laws?

Imagine waking up to the stench of a chemical spill in your neighborhood. 

A thick, acrid smell hangs in the air, and residents are warned to stay indoors. This scenario is not uncommon in the United States, where lax environmental regulations have allowed toxic chemicals to seep into our air, water, and soil.

Over 123 million Americans (39% of the total US population) reside within three miles of a toxic waste site. According to the EPA, each year, over 145 serious chemical incidents occur in the U.S. In the first 50 days of 2023 alone, there were over 30 recorded incidents as per the Coalition to Prevent Chemical Disasters.

The consequences of these toxic chemical exposures are well-documented. From cancer to birth defects, these substances pose a significant risk to public safety and the environment. Yet, despite the urgency, the US legislation is slow in implementing stricter laws to curb this menace.

Common toxic chemicals include PFAS (used in firefighting foams), lead, mercury, and various industrial solvents. The risks of these chemicals are very real, and they’re in more places than you might think. These substances can persist in the environment for years, accumulating in living organisms and causing long-term harm.

Because they linger in the environment, toxic chemicals pose a continuous danger to both people and ecosystems. This persistent threat of these chemicals highlights the urgent need for stricter regulations and safer alternatives.

The Persistent Threat of Toxic Chemicals

Toxic chemicals are ubiquitous in modern society, found in everything from household cleaners to industrial processes. 

While their use may be convenient, the risks they pose are significant and often underestimated. One prime example is the AFFF lawsuit, a legal battle against manufacturers of firefighting foams containing PFAS. These aqueous film-forming foams have been linked to various health issues, including cancer, thyroid disorders, hormonal disruption, and other reproductive and developmental problems in communities exposed to them.

Even after exposure ends, these chemicals can remain in the body and environment for decades, slowly wreaking havoc. Bioaccumulation in the food chain means we may be ingesting toxic substances without realizing it.

According to TruLaw, exposure to these toxic chemicals can lead to various health issues, including cancer, reproductive issues, developmental disorders, neurological damage, and organ dysfunction. The effects may manifest immediately or take years to surface.

Gaps in Current Environmental Regulations

While the US has environmental laws, many are outdated and inadequate to address modern chemical threats. Standards for acceptable exposure levels fail to account for the cumulative effects of multiple chemical exposures.

The laws meant to protect us from harmful chemicals, the Clean Air Act and the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), are notoriously weak.

The TSCA largely puts the burden on citizens to prove a chemical is dangerous before it can be restricted. This is the opposite of how it works in many other countries. Decades went by before we took strong action against known dangers like lead and asbestos. 

Moreover, enforcement of existing regulations is lax, with industries frequently finding loopholes or lobbying for exemptions. The approval process for new chemicals is often streamlined, prioritizing economic interests over public health concerns.

The slow pace of updating regulations to address emerging chemical threats is also a significant issue. By the time a substance is recognized as hazardous, countless individuals and ecosystems may have already been exposed.

How Toxic Chemicals Harm Us? The Impact on Everyday Life

PFAS contamination is a major problem, but it’s far from the only way toxic chemicals sneak into our daily lives. Here’s a look at how that exposure can impact us:

  • Our Water: Beyond PFAS, drinking water can contain traces of pesticides, heavy metals like lead, and even residues from pharmaceuticals. This places extra stress on our bodies and increases long-term health risks. Communities and individuals shoulder the financial burden of extensive filtration when clean water isn’t guaranteed.

  • Our Food: Pesticide use in agriculture leaves residues on food, contributing to our overall toxic load. As per the Environmental Working Group’s 2022 Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce, strawberries, spinach, and a group of greens – kale, collard, and mustard contain the highest traces of pesticides.

    On the other hand, avocados, sweet corn, and pineapples are among the top three foods with the least traces of pesticides. Hormones and antibiotics present in animal products can also affect our hormonal systems.

  • Our Homes: Flame retardants in furniture, formaldehyde in building materials, and phthalates in plastics can all leach into our indoor air.  These are linked to issues ranging from respiratory issues to developmental delays in children.

  • Our Workplaces: Many workers face much higher exposure levels than the general population.

Think of factory workers handling solvents, construction workers with asbestos risks, or farm workers exposed to high levels of pesticides. According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), exposure to hazardous substances or environments is one of the five most common causes of workplace deaths.

About ten percent of workers lose their lives due to workplace chemical exposure. In 2022, there were 839 such fatalities. This also results in disproportionate rates of chronic illness and occupational cancers.

The problem is that the long-term effects of many chemicals aren’t fully understood, and the combined impact of this “chemical soup” in our daily lives is even murkier. It underscores the urgent need for a precautionary approach to limit our exposure.

The Case for Stricter Environmental Laws

Implementing stricter environmental laws is not just a matter of public health; it’s an investment in our future. The long-term costs of inaction, including healthcare expenses and environmental remediation, far outweigh the short-term economic benefits of lax regulations.

The US needs to shift the burden of proof.  Chemicals should be considered unsafe until proven otherwise. We require transparency, demanding that companies disclose where PFAS are used. Limits must be set for how much PFAS is acceptable in our water and consumer products.  

And importantly, we need to invest in finding safer alternatives and cleaning up the mess that’s already been made.

Countries with stricter environmental laws have seen positive outcomes, such as reduced rates of certain diseases, cleaner air and water, and a healthier population overall. These benefits extend beyond public health, fostering a more sustainable economy and preserving natural resources for future generations.

In conclusion, the threat of toxic chemicals is real and pervasive. As citizens, we have a responsibility to demand change from our policymakers and hold industries accountable.

Stricter environmental laws that prioritize public health over profits are long overdue. By embracing sustainable practices and implementing proactive regulations, we can safeguard our environment and protect future generations from the scourge of toxic chemical exposure.

The time to act is now before the consequences become irreversible.

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