The powerful influence of the petrochemical industry on the health and safety of our children is mind-boggling. It all began after World War II, when the industry focused on new uses for their potent chemicals. One example was agricultural spraying with DDT, without testing for safety. It took Rachel Carson and her book, Silent Spring in 1962, to awaken the public to the dangers. Because of her influence, in the 1970s the Environmental Protection Agency and the Toxic Substance Control Act were implemented.
So we relaxed because we thought we were being protected. However, over the years lobbying efforts on behalf of the petrochemical industry have minimized the power of the EPA and the Toxic Substance Control Act. To date only five chemicals have been blocked from production in the U.S.
In the '70s we were perceived by the world as the moral leader in health and environmental regulation, but leadership is shifting to the European Union. In 2006, they passed Registration, Evaluation and Authorization of Chemicals (REACH). Since the E.U. is considered a major trading power, their standard is becoming the international standard. Companies have fallen into step, following their regulations in order to have trading access with countries worldwide.
Many U.S. companies are also following their guidelines, except for products sold in our own country. That's right! Dr. Mark Shapiro, author of Exposed: Deregulating Chemicals, predicts we will become the dumping ground for all toxic products. Why? Because Congress has paved the way for the petrochemical industry through deregulation. During the Bush years, there was a shift from a risk-benefit model to a cost-benefit model for environmental oversight.
But we're not one of those communities with chemical plants and oil refineries in our midst. Why should we be concerned about this in Oak Park?
- Toxic chemicals are in products on shelves in our stores and are too numerous to list.
- Pesticide use on private lawns is the norm. The American Academy of Pediatrics just came out with an urgent message for pediatricians to educate parents on reducing children's exposure to pesticides since they are "associated with pediatric cancers, decreased cognitive functioning and behavioral problems." (http://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/130/6/e1757.full)
- Artificial turf will be installed at Ridgeland Common and other parks. It is made from recycled tires, which contain chemicals that are carcinogens, endocrine disruptors, neurological and reproductive toxins.
- Talk of pesticides being used in our parks and on our fields is becoming more prominent again — after a 20-year hiatus, thanks to Barbara Mullarky.
I do not question the integrity and deep commitment of our elected park board commissioners and our amazing and valued park district staff. However, because of the petrochemical industry's power, it is difficult to find accurate and up-to-date information.
I have been concerned about the impact of toxins on our children and the environment for many years. I have had the good fortune of being in contact with several esteemed scientists in the field who have lead me to solid data. I understand how difficult and time-consuming it is to seek out scientifically researched information. I have written numerous essays in this section over the last year to share information with Oak Park citizens, so we all can make informed decisions.
Remember the Precautionary Principle, used in both Europe and Canada. It states simply: If the product is not proven safe, it cannot be sold.
"When an activity raises threats of harm to human health or the environment , precautionary measures should be taken even if some cause and effect relationships are not fully established scientifically" (Wingspread Summit Conference, 1998).
In common language, this means "better safe than sorry." We need to err on the side of caution, to ensure the health and safety of all our children (http://commonweal.org/programs/precautionary-principle.html).
In the U.S. we have the opposite policy: A toxic product is deemed innocent until proven guilty. This puts the burden of proof on the victims of the toxicity, often after dire consequences.
Together, we must change this.
Peggy McGrath is a member of the Greening Advisory Committee of the Park District of Oak Park. This essay is reflects her own opinion, not the committee's.