In Whose Backyard?

Chemical Toxins, Reproductive Health, and Communities of Color

Dangerous chemicals affect all Americans, but disproportionately harm communities of color that often live and work in closer proximity to them.

Asian American women who largely staff nail salons come into constant contact with many toxic ingredients in nail care products that are largely unregulated in the United States. (AP/Mike Derer)
Asian American women who largely staff nail salons come into constant contact with many toxic ingredients in nail care products that are largely unregulated in the United States. (AP/Mike Derer)

Reproductive health in the United States is steadily declining as chemical production continues to increase. The vast majority of those affected by fertility problems, miscarriages, preterm births, and birth defects are low-income communities of color. Many of these communities are located in neighborhoods near chemical dumps, power plants, and other polluting facilities that contaminate the food, water, and air.

Asian American women who live in low-income areas with high levels of environmental contaminants such as dioxins, for example, have some of the highest rates of endometriosis, a condition in which tissue that normally lines the uterus grows in other areas of the body. This condition can lead to infertility, cervical cancer, and other reproductive complications.

Low birth weight and premature births are also linked to environmental contamination. The number of infants born with low birth weight increased almost 1 percent in just 10 years from 1994 to 2004. African American women have the highest rates of premature births and are more likely to have infants with low and very low birth weights.

The Toxics Release Inventory—a database detailing 650 chemicals that 21,695 industrial facilities manage—reported in 2008 that 3.9 billion pounds of on-site and off-site disposals were released into our environment. More than 85 percent of all chemicals in use have not been tested for their effects on human health, including more than 50 percent of high-volume chemicals, which have annual production and/or importation volumes above 1 million pounds.

Both houses of Congress introduced legislation on April 15 that would better regulate industrial chemicals by overhauling the Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976, or TSCA, and reforming the way the federal government protects the public from toxic chemicals. Sen. Frank Lautenberg, (D-NY), introduced the Safe Chemicals Act of 2010, which will require safety testing for all industrial chemicals and put the burden on industries to prove that chemicals are safe in order to enter or stay on the market. The current policy allows the Environmental Protection Agency to call for safety testing only after evidence surfaces demonstrating a chemical is dangerous.

The stronger standards adopted in the Safe Chemicals Act would help to lower human exposure to industrial chemicals, contaminated food, dangerous household products and cosmetics, and workplaces where chemicals are used.

One benefit of this new policy is that the nearly 3 million migrant and seasonal farmworkers in the United States would no longer be subjected to low levels of occupational exposure to chemicals in pesticides. Pesticides can injure field workers through direct spray, drift, or the residue left by pesticides. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics has found that agricultural workers, who are largely Latino, suffer from the highest rates of chemically related illnesses of any occupational group.

Another workplace that continues to attract public attention is nail salons, which are largely staffed with Asian immigrants. Nail care products contain, in varying amounts, many toxic and potentially hazardous ingredients that are largely unregulated in the United States. In fact, nearly 90 percent of the 10,500 chemicals used in personal care products, including nail care products, have not been assessed for safety.

Health care workers also work with dozens of toxic chemicals and drugs in diagnosing, preventing, managing, and treating diseases and other health conditions. Yet there have never been any studies on the magnitude of health problems that nurses and health aides may face from their diverse and chronic exposure to hazardous cleaning, disinfecting and sterilizing agents, radiation, mercury, potent medications, and other chemicals.

The Center for American Progress issued a report last year with recommendations to modernize chemical safety and reduce human exposure to dangerous chemicals. The Safe Chemicals Act would accomplish many of the goals set out in our report and better protect those whose reproductive health is endangered by chemicals.

Separate measures that would also strengthen chemical safety efforts include more research to examine possible environmental triggers of reproductive health problems and greater authority for the Food and Drug Administration and the Consumer Product Safety Commission to keep dangerous chemicals out of cosmetics and consumer products.

Taking these steps toward chemical reform will significantly improve environmental and reproductive health for many Americans—especially communities of color.

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Whitney Maddox is an intern with the Progress 2050 program at the Center for American Progress.

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