A Midterm Lay of the Land: Toxics

Protecting our health from toxic threats requires stronger regulation along with development of less chemically intensive systems and safer substitutes for dangerous chemicals.

Jon Sundby

Policy Associate

The 2018 election is now behind us, with a new Congress, new governors and new state legislators about to grapple with America’s biggest challenges.

Every two years, Frontier Group analysts take a step back to review the “lay of the land” on their issue areas. This is the eighth in a series of posts over the next several weeks reviewing the threats and opportunities facing the American people, our communities, and our environment.

Chemicals are everywhere. They are in our cleaning products, our food, the computer on which you are reading this post – everywhere.

Since World War II, synthetic chemicals have reshaped modern life, but at a heavy cost to our environment and our health. A regulatory regime in which new chemicals are routinely given the benefit of the doubt has led to the introduction of substances that put our health at risk and made it difficult to remove dangerous substances from the market, even after sufficient evidence exists to question their safety.

Take asbestos, for example. Asbestos is a group of natural minerals that separate into thin fibers, which are durable and heat resistant. They are also carcinogenic. Numerous studies have linked asbestos to the presence of the lung disease asbestosis, as well as to lung cancer and mesothelioma, a rare form of chest cancer that almost never develops unless preceded by the exposure to asbestos. Despite the well-understood effects of asbestos, the United States has not yet joined the growing list of nations that have banned its use. The EPA warns that asbestos is still present in many schools and homes and the CDC estimates that almost 50,000 Americans died from mesothelioma between 1999-2015.

Another class of chemicals further exemplifies America’s lax policy response to toxic threats. PFOS, PFOA and PFHxS are used in a variety of industrial and commercial products, such as non-stick cookware, food packaging and fire-fighting foams, and have been found to lead to liver damage and inhibit fetal development. CDC biomonitoring studies have found PFHxS in over 95 percent of their sample population, and some studies have found that PFHS levels in blood are higher in children than adults. Currently, the EPA has set no enforceable levels for these chemicals in drinking water and has only released a non-regulatory health advisory.

The heavy usage of chemicals in agriculture can also affect public health. Synthetic pesticides have been common in American farming since the 1940s, but the widespread utilization of genetically modified crops has accelerated the usage of some of these chemicals. For instance, the presence of glyphosate has increased 15-fold in the U.S. since the introduction of “Roundup Ready” crops in 1996. Glyphosate has been classified as a “probable carcinogen” by the World Health Organization, and some pilot studies have found that it could affect sexual development and intestinal bacterial flora.

While glyphosate is perhaps the most well-known pesticide in the U.S., other agricultural chemicals also pose a danger to human health. Chlorpyrifos is an insecticide that is in the same class of chemicals as sarin gas and is common in some sectors of U.S. agriculture. At low doses, it has been found to cause nausea, dizziness and intestinal discomfort, and high levels of exposure can lead to paralysis, seizures and even death. Some studies have also suggested that the chemical may lead to developmental issues in children. In 2000, the EPA banned the chemical for most home uses, and in 2015, the EPA proposed a complete ban. However, former EPA director Scott Pruitt reversed this decision in the first months after he took office, and the chemical is still widely used in some agricultural regions.

The danger these substances pose has spurred legislation throughout the years, resulting in a regulatory framework defined by the Toxic Substance Control Act (TSCA) of 1976 and more recently, the Frank R. Lautenberg Chemical Safety for the 21st Century Act. Yet, the nation’s policy on toxic chemicals remains too little, and often too late. American consumers deserve a system where the products they buy, the air they breathe, and the water they drink are toxic-free and safe.  

Policymakers around the country have several opportunities to move us closer to that vision in 2019:

A Ban on Asbestos: In August, the EPA proposed new regulations that would further limit the legal uses for asbestos. However, many public health advocates argue that these rules don’t go far enough. Following a Reuters investigation on asbestos in baby powder, Oregon’s Senator Jeff Merkley and Congresswomen Suzanne Bonamici plan to renew their push for the “Alan Reinstein Ban Asbestos Now Act,” which would implement a ban within 18 months.

Pesticide Regulations: In response to the back-stepping of the EPA on its chlorpyrifos ban, Hawaii has passed its own ban and officials in California have issued temporary rules restricting where and how the pesticide can be applied while they work on more comprehensive regulations. Separately, the EPA has been ordered by the Ninth Court of Appeals to ban the chemical due to its public health risks, but the agency is currently appealing the ruling.

58 local jurisdictions across the country have also made it illegal to spray the herbicide glyphosate on public and/or private lands, and almost a hundred more have passed tougher regulations on the chemical’s usage. In 2019, look for more localities to follow suit. 

Stricter Water Standards: Seven states have already laid out their own water quality standards in regards to PFAS, PFOS and similar chemicals. Eleven more are considering implementing similar regulations, as well as banning the use of the chemicals in various products. 


Protecting our health from toxic threats requires stronger regulation along with innovation to develop less chemically intensive systems and safer substitutes for the most dangerous chemicals. Despite inaction at the federal level, a growing contingent of cities and states are taking action to protect their citizens and build a healthier economy. The new year provides new opportunities for progress. 



Photo credit: Aqua Mechanical, CC BY 2.0


Jon Sundby

Policy Associate