For Mother’s Day: What Chemical Reform Can Do For Workers


In celebration of Mother’s Day, May 9th, 2010, RH Reality Check is publishing a series of articles on the intersection of motherhood with reproductive and sexual justice.

“America’s system for regulating industrial chemicals is broken,” Senator Frank Lautenberg said when he introduced the Safe Chemicals Act last week. “Parents are afraid because hundreds of untested chemicals are found in their children’s bodies. EPA does not have the tools to act on dangerous chemicals, and the chemical industry has asked for stronger laws so that their customers are assured their products are safe.”

As a parent-to-be (8 weeks to go, and counting down) I was elated to read Lautenberg’s words, and to know that he has helped kick off a long overdue discussion of the US’s outmoded system.  When the current law governing how chemicals are was passed in 1976 regulated (Toxic Substances Control Act or TSCA), people were wearing red-white and blue bell- bottoms and I was a toddler.  Then, there were 5,000 chemicals in regular use, and now we are at about 90,000.  Clearly, we are living in a different world and change is long overdue.

Entering the world of parenting has always been fraught with decisions…how to balance work and family, choosing a pediatrician, and paying for daycare have been at the top of the list for decades.  More recently, families have expressed growing concern about our ongoing exposure to toxic chemicals, and the impact that has on babies and children’s health and well-being.  The possible links between environmental toxins and autism and other childhood diseases that are on the rise keep many expectant parents up at night.

But I work at Asian Communities for Reproductive Justice, where a large part of my job has been supporting the nail salon community.  When I hear Senator Lautenberg talk about the fears that parents feel, I also see the rest of the iceberg, and know we are only the tip.

Nail salons are by no means the “dirtiest” industry women work in, but in cities like Oakland, it is a significant employer for low-income, immigrant women.  And unlike the factories and assembly work where many women are regularly exposed to toxic chemicals, nail salons are places where workers and clients mingle all day long.

Nail salon workers experience all kinds of symptoms, from high rates of miscarriage, to itching and burning eyes, skins and lungs.  And many of the products that salon workers are using are considered endocrine disrupters and are classified as carcinogens, but there are no long-term studies of their health impacts.

Hearing Lautenberg’s words, I was thinking about what he didn’t say, and what I haven’t heard much of in the coverage of the bill: what could this mean for the people who have the highest levels of exposure, the least information and opportunities to identify alternatives, and about whom we have the least long-term health data.  The workers.

As an organizer and future mom, I am hoping we can wrap two babies in this blanket: Can we use this opportunity of the Safe Chemicals Act of 2010 to make meaningful change? I think we can, and here are six ways to start:

Set exposure limits for workers, not just for consumers.

Improve labeling: Despite common misunderstanding to the contrary, for most of the products we all use at home and at work, there is little that the labels tell us.

Gather information specifically about the reproductive health impacts of working around harmful chemicals, and make it available to workers in ways that promote safer alternatives.  Advocate for reproductive health indicators to be included into the EPA’s review process for chemicals.

Support businesses of all sizes to transition to greener products and practices that will support the environment, consumers and workers.  Small businesses like nail salons will need access to information, ideas and other resources to help them make these transitions.

Ask workers: They can tell us a lot about what they are exposed to and places to reduce exposures.

Some supporters of reproductive health have been nervous about shining too much light on the reproductive risks to chemical exposure in the workplace, worried that we could unintentionally create a situation where women could be held liable for “exposing their fetus to toxins” or employers could use it as a reason to keep women of reproductive age out of certain jobs.

But given the overwhelming evidence of reproductive risk, it seems unfair to protect ourselves from these possible hazards without talking about the workers who are exposed to real health risks every moment of the day.  We can use the opportunity of the Safe Chemicals Act of 2010 to have a meaningful conversation about chemicals in our homes, our workplaces, and our kids.

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