An increasing number of studies indicate that environmental toxins can lead to serious adverse reproductive health outcomes. But despite this mounting evidence, adequate safeguards to minimize exposure to toxic chemicals are lacking in a U.S. regulatory system that tilts strongly in favor of industry.

The ubiquitous chemical bisphenol A (BPA)—widely used in food and beverage containers and other everyday products—has received particular attention from reproductive health advocates. Scientific studies have linked BPA exposure, particularly during critical windows of development such as fetal growth, to decreased fertility, sexual dysfunction and increased risks of prostate and breast cancers later in life. Reversing a position taken during the Bush administration, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in January finally acknowledged official concern about BPA’s effects on fetuses, infants and young children. It stopped short, however, of definitively labeling the chemical unsafe or taking specific measures to regulate its use.

In fact, federal regulatory agencies have limited authority to act under existing law. The 1976 Toxic Substances Control Act authorizes the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to monitor and regulate the approximately 80,000 chemicals currently in commercial use in the United States. However, the law requires the EPA to prove that chemicals pose an “unreasonable risk" of injury, instead of requiring manufacturers themselves to prove that their products are safe before distributing them commercially.

Although decidedly an uphill battle, regulatory reform may be gaining momentum in Congress. Last week, Senator Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) introduced sweeping legislation long advocated by environmental and reproductive health organizations. Among other things, the Safe Chemicals Act would shift the burden for demonstrating safety from the federal government to companies.

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BPA-Free and Beyond: Protecting Reproductive Health from Environmental Toxins