GroundTruth Blog

Kristin Schafer's blog

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Three cheers for sanity on Capitol Hill! For the first time in 36 years, lawmakers voted Wednesday to strengthen the national law governing toxic chemicals. If it keeps moving and becomes law, the bill will tighten the rules governing those 84,000+ substances that make their way into our homes in everything from baby bottles to seat cushions.

True, it was the first of many steps: a committee vote in the Senate. But it's a huge, important move in the right direction — made in the face of strong pushback from the chemical industry. And it's long overdue.

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There's an interesting debate emerging in the public health world. It has to do with whether we need to rejigger our thinking about the risks pesticides and other chemicals pose to children's health.

Traditionally, we've had a "disease-oriented" approach, assessing risk based on the severity of a health outcome (think birth defects or cancer). But earlier this month a provocative Environmental Health Perspectives article argued that a "population approach" might be wiser — meaning that even when a health effect is not severe, if it's affecting a huge number of our children (think dropping IQs), we should be paying attention.

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Part of my job here at PAN is keeping track of the latest research about how pesticides are harming children’s health. This has kept me too busy of late, as studies seem to be coming fast and furious linking pesticides with childhood asthma, autism, birth defects, cancer and more.

One recent study gave me serious pause. We already understand that some chemicals can change how our genes function; now researchers know that this damage can be passed from one generation to the next. I’m no scientist, but I understand enough to know that compromising the DNA of future generations is not a good idea.

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If we set our minds to it, we can turn back the rising tide of autism. But it will take the courage to embrace the following common-sense goal, in both policy and practice: Expecting parents and young children should not take in chemical contaminants that are known to harm developing minds.

This week, scientists released a list of exactly which contaminants we're talking about. The top 10 chemicals contributing to autism and learning disabilities include commonly used pesticides, as well as chemicals found in many consumer products. The scientists tell us the list is likely to grow. But for now, it's time to act on what we know.

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Last week was a busy one for Sofía Gatica. On Monday, she won the global Goldman Environmental Prize for her efforts to protect her children and neighbors from pesticides. On Wednesday, she asked President Obama to investigate Monsanto’s “pesticide poisonings and livelihood harms” in her community and beyond.

It makes perfect sense. After all, both the genetically engineered soy beans that now surround her small Argentine community — and the herbicide those beans are designed to withstand — were produced and aggressively marketed  by a company based right here in the U.S. In St. Louis, Missouri, to be precise.