Five years ago, a group of women’s health advocates met with scientists in California to discuss creeping infertility rates among men and women. Between 1995 and 2002, the number of couples having problems conceiving had grown from 6.1 million to 7.3 million. That meant that one out of every eight heterosexual couples was infertile, according to Center for Disease Control data.
Women’s health advocates and scientists had long known that environmental contaminants like cigarette smoke and mercury were major culprits when it came to diminished fertility. But what brought the two groups together for the first time was alarming evidence that commonplace material, such as plastics, could damage the reproductive system.
Sounds like old news, right? We’ve all fretted over bisphenol-a, a chemical found in plastic bottles that caused hormonal changes in animals in lab tests, and we all kvelled when in 2008 Nalgene opted to stop using the plastic in its camping wares. But while our attention has shifted to the next environmental catastrophe du jour, those pesky chemicals haven’t gone anywhere.
Last week, lawmakers in both houses of Congress introduced the Safe Chemicals Act, a bill meant to up the ante when it comes to chemical testing in the United States. If made into law, the bill will fortify the Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976, a weak attempt at federal regulation. As RH Reality Check contributor Jennifer Rogers notes, the “TSCA was already outdated before it was signed into law. Many dangerous chemicals were ‘grandfathered in’ under the new law and remain in use today. Many new chemicals remain unregulated because the legislation was limited in scope.”
According to EHS Today, a trade publication for environment, health, and safety workers, the TSCA’s greatest weakness is its inability to stop dangerous chemicals from entering the market. “Under current policy, the [Environmental Protection Agency] can call for safety testing only after evidence surfaces demonstrating a chemical is dangerous. As a result, EPA has been able to require testing for just 200 of the more than 80,000 chemicals currently registered in the United States and has been able to ban only five dangerous substances.”
The new bill would require manufacturers to provide information to the EPA about chemicals currently in circulation as well as those headed for the market. And while some environmental groups want even stricter regulations, women’s health groups say the bill is a small, yet serious step, toward curbing infertility due to pollutants. We’ll drink (out of a glass bottle) to that.
Image: Michelle Schantz (Schantzilla)