Sen. Boxer pushes for tougher toxics law

by Carolyn Lockhead, San Francisco Chronicle

Retired San Francisco fire Capt. Tony Stefani, who contracted a rare form of pelvic cancer, told a Senate committee Tuesday that there is evidence that flame retardants and other chemicals used in household products expose firefighters to a "toxic soup" after they extinguish fires.

Stefani founded the San Francisco Firefighters Cancer Prevention Fund in 2006 after two other firefighters he worked with also contracted the cancer, known as transitional cell carcinoma, in its more common form of bladder cancer.

Since then, his foundation has been involved in three studies of environmental exposure to chemical toxins. The latest, to be published in September, studied 12 San Francisco firefighters whose blood was tested immediately after two separate fires. It found that the firefighters had levels of a common flame retardant, known as polybrominated diphenylethers, that were more than 30 percent higher than the general population of California and more than 60 percent higher than the U.S. population, Stefani said.

Stefani was the star witness at a hearing called by Sen. Barbara Boxer, a California Democrat who chairs the Environment and Public Works Committee, to push legislation through her committee Wednesday that would tighten regulations on chemicals.

The law governing industrial chemicals, the Toxic Substances Control Act, was enacted in 1976 and has never been updated. Boxer said efforts to find a compromise with committee Republicans failed and she expects them to oppose the bill, called the Safe Chemicals Act of 2011, sponsored by Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J.

Some public health experts blame the rise in modern diseases such as asthma, breast cancer, reproductive disorders and neurological problems like Parkinson’s disease and autism on chemical exposures. A coalition of community health groups – the Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families Coalition – issued a report Monday arguing that the 1976 law is outdated.

The group said the law, now 36 years old, has prevented the Environmental Protection Agency from requiring testing on 98 percent of the more than 80,000 chemicals that have come to market since the law was passed. In the meantime, the report said the volumes of chemicals used in products has increased sharply, making them ubiquitous in daily life, even as scientific evidence has accumulated that chemical exposures can affect human health.

James Jones, the acting assistant administrator for the EPA’s Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention, testified that the toxics law needs to be brought "into the 21st century." Jones said that when it was enacted, 62,000 commercial chemicals were grandfathered in without testing, and that the agency has been able to require testing on only 200 of the current inventory of 84,000 chemicals now used in commercial applications.

Jones called fire retardants a "prime example" of the law’s shortcomings. He said the agency plans to conduct risk assessments on flame retardants next year out of concern that the chemicals are "toxic to both humans and the environment."

Stefani said flame retardants are used in many common household products, including furniture foam, plastic cabinets, computers, small appliances, consumer electronics, upholstery and wire insulation.

William Rawson, a legal expert for the chemical industry, said many other agencies besides the EPA regulate chemicals and that the industry conducts extensive voluntary testing.