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Give us a piece of your mind!

The CDC begins its National Conversation on Public Health and Chemical Exposures

“What you are hearing is pent up frustration at the lack of action from the most impacted communities,” said Robert Bullard professor of sociology at Clark Atlanta University, on Friday morning June 26th at what the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and its Agency for Toxic Substance and Disease Registry (ATSDR) billed as the kick-off event for what the agency is calling a National Conversation on Public Health and Chemical Exposures. This process – designed to involve governmental and non-governmental policy makers, scientists, and concerned citizens – is intended to improve how the U.S. federal government protects its citizens from exposure hazardous chemicals “This is a disaster, a human-made disaster,” said Bullard of the ongoing public exposure to toxic chemicals, a sentiment voiced loudly by those attending Friday’s meeting.

It’s now clear that despite the proliferation of environmental regulations and past decades’ progress in curtailing the kind of industrial pollution that plagued the country throughout the twentieth century (and before), that current policies and practices do not adequately protect the public from exposure to chemical hazards. Contamination from long polluted sites persists in communities all across the country, as do ongoing adverse impacts of industrial chemicals used in manufacturing, agriculture and pest control. At the same time there’s growing evidence that synthetic chemicals used in consumer products have permeated Americans’ lives and bodies – as documented by the CDC’s own surveys – and that these substances may be affecting health at levels encountered regularly. Reforming policy to address current chemical realities will require changes at many levels. The CDC’s “National Conversation” is but one part of that process.

The event on the 26th began with presentations from Howard Frumkin, director of the CDC’s National Center for Environmental Health, EPA administrator Lisa Jackson, and Linda Birnbaum, director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences and National Toxicology Program. Meeting participants were then invited to share their suggestions and comments in public comments before moving to smaller working groups. It’s hard to know if the organizers were prepared for the high level of frustration, anger and near desperation voiced by those who stood to speak in the short 40 minutes or so allotted.

“You are in a pivotal role to protect human health and this conversation needs to begin with action,” said Lin Kaatz Chary of the Great Lakes Green Chemistry Network when she got her turn at the mic. “Risk assessment has failed communities. We have to look at hazard. For prevention, precaution must be the default,” she said, addressing the officials. Other participants who stood to speak included those testifying on behalf of communities affected by pesticide pollution, by those suffering ongoing impacts of pollution unleashed by Hurricane Katrina (and compounded by exposure to toxic chemicals in FEMA trailers), military base pollution, and on-the-job exposures. “People are continually being harmed by the agency hired to protect us,” said one woman of the ATSDR.

How this “National Conversation” may play out will unfold over the next 18 months or so. But it’s already clear from government officials, including EPA Administrator Jackson, that current regulations – among them the Toxics Substance Control Act – are in for scrutiny and likely revision. At the same time it’s apparent from those advocating for public health, for children’s health, workers’ health, toxic waste site clean-up, and for environmentally benign synthetic chemicals, manufactured materials and products, that there may well be a groundswell of citizen concern to push such policy reform toward a more precautionary stance than the United States has yet taken.

As Ken Geiser, professor in the department of work environment at the University of Massachusetts said on Friday, “reducing exposure” is not enough. We “need to go further to reduce hazard and do it in a just and fair way.” – “Give us a piece of your mind!” asks the CDC website calling for participation in this “National Conversation.” On Friday it was clear that those who’d made their way to the Washington, DC meeting – some traveling great distances to be there – are out to accomplish more than just vent frustration.

Elizabeth Grossman, Contributing Writer, Earth Island Journal
Elizabeth Grossman is the author of Chasing Molecules: Poisonous Products, Human Health and the Promise of Green Chemistry, High Tech Trash: Digital Devices, Hidden Toxics, and Human Health, Watershed: The Undamming of America, and other books. Her work has appeared in Scientific American, Salon, The Washington Post, The Nation, Mother Jones, Grist, Earth Island Journal, and other publications.

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