Protect Montana’s families from toxic chemicals

This item originally appeared in: The Missoulian

Author

Kelly Barber, James Steele Jr, Amy Carter, and Peter Shober

 In Montana, we’re blessed with wide open spaces that invite families to get out of their homes and cars, and enjoy time together outside. The landscape breathes green this time of year, our hills exploding with wildflowers and the snowpack releasing clean, cold water into our rivers and streams.

Healthy living has never felt better. Unfortunately, exercise and fresh air may not be enough to keep our kids healthy.

Toxic chemicals like mercury, formaldehyde and Bisphenol A (BPA) threaten our kids’ health and safety in the most protected location – our homes.

The federal Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976 is the law that should be protecting our kids from these harmful chemicals. But it is badly broken and desperately needs reform.

The Environmental Protection Agency has only tested a couple hundred of the 85,000 chemicals on the market. In fact, chemical companies don’t have to show their products are safe before they end up on retailers’ shelves and into our nurseries, living rooms and kitchens.

For example, formaldehyde is known to cause upper airway cancer, leukemia, respiratory illness and asthma. Yet manufacturers use it in composite wood products (like particle board) to make furniture including cribs and changing tables, and it even appears at dangerous levels in our carpets.

Speaking of formaldehyde in composite wood, we are particularly alarmed that Montana’s tribal communities may be at additional risk from exposure to this cancer-causing chemical. Thousands of modular homes and smaller trailers were built for homeless victims of Hurricane Katrina. Tragically, many of the displaced started to get sick. Researchers found toxic levels of formaldehyde in the homes from the plywood used in construction. Some homes were occupied, and others stacked up empty for months while FEMA scrambled.

Now, in the name of providing for housing-insecure Native American communities, many of these modular homes have traveled north to Montana’s Indian reservations, exposing our families once again. While it is unclear whether or not these particular homes contain health-jeopardizing levels of formaldehyde, the threat is real, and the federal guidelines for “safe” exposure are inconsistent across agencies and almost completely unregulated for use in consumer products.

As people who live in and love Montana, we hold in common a sense that each of us has an obligation to care for our neighbors, and that a just society requires health and safety for all.

It is time for chemical policy reform, and Montanans cannot wait any longer. Congress must act now.

The good news is that chemical reform is on its way. The Safe Chemicals Act of 2011 would take meaningful steps to protect American families from harmful household chemicals. Both of Montana’s senators – Max Baucus and Jon Tester – support the measure.

The Safe Chemicals Act would go a long way to protect Montanans from toxic chemicals. It would require chemical companies to prove their products are safe before they hit retail shelves. The badly needed reform would increase public information on chemical safety, so that those among us who’ve prioritized the health of our families and religiously read labels would have the information we need to be informed consumers. The Safe Chemicals Act would have prevented the immoral and unthinkable tragedy of illness from the formaldehyde-ridden homes.

Many Montanans support these health efforts. Such groups include Health Care Without Harm, the Montana Public Health Association, Montana Conservation Voters Education Fund and Women’s Voices for the Earth.

Local organizers encourage participation in an upcoming Superheroes for Health Stroller Brigade on Tuesday, May 22, in conjunction with a national day of action for safer chemicals. Kids and babies, parents, health care professionals and community members will meet at Caras Park at the fish sculptures at noon, and walk to Baucus’s and Tester’s offices to thank them for supporting the Safe Chemicals Act. The public is encouraged to attend, and help deliver the message that Montanans won’t wait much longer for this necessary reform.

Congress, help keep our kids and communities safe from harm – pass the Safe Chemicals Act.

Kelli Barber is a registered nurse who lives in Whitefish, and the co-chair of the Nurses Work Group for Health Care Without Harm. James Steele Jr. is the former chair of the Salish and Kootenai Tribes. The Rev. Amy Carter and the Rev. Peter Shober are pastors at the University Congregational Church.