Spill Workers Get Sick, Chemicals Get a Pass

<a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/deepwaterhorizonresponse/4656038038/">Deepwater Horizon Response</a>

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Last week, seven oil-spill clean-up workers were hospitalized after reporting nausea, headaches, dizziness, and chest pains. Doctors said the symptoms could have been caused by airborne chemical exposure while cleaning up oil slicks. The workers’ families have blamed chemicals in the dispersants being used to break up the oil. However, BP has said that air quality tests done at the clean-up sites before the workers fell ill found nothing unusual; it first blamed the workers’ condition on fatigue and sun exposure. BP CEO Tony Hayward has since chalked up the workers’ conditions to food poisoning: “I am sure they were genuinely ill, but whether it was anything to do with dispersants and oil, whether it was food poisoning or some other reason for them being ill, you know, there’s a—food poisoning is surely a big issue when you’ve got a concentration of this number of people in temporary camps, temporary accommodations.”

The possibility that the clean-up workers’ were suffering from chemical exposure is a reminder of just how weak our chemical regulations are. Last month, the President’s Cancer Panel reported that more than 80,000 industrial chemicals are used in the United States and about 700 new ones are introduced annually—yet very few are tested for potential health or environmental impacts before they hit the market. The panel found that those most vulnerable to chemical exposure are migrant workers, children, and blue collar workers—like those cleaning up BP’s mess in the Gulf.

The panel suggested that the US adopt a precautionary approach similar to the one employed by the European Union, which tries to screen out dangerous chemicals before they hit the market. Under our current system, chemicals are considered innocent until proven guilty. Laws protecting trade secrets prevent access to important information that might determine if a chemical is harmful. And if a chemical does appear to pose a risk, the burden of proof is on the EPA, which often has its hands tied. In April, Senator Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) introduced a bill that would amend the archaic Toxic Substance Control Act of 1976 to be more precautionary than reactionary. “America’s system for regulating industrial chemicals is broken,” he said. The bill is hanging out in the Committee on Environment and Public Works, awaiting further action.

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SIX TRUTHS

Reclaiming power from those who abuse it often starts with telling the truth. And in "This Is How Authoritarians Get Defeated," MoJo's Monika Bauerlein unpacks six truths to remember during the homestretch of an election where democracy, truth, and decency are on the line.

Truth #1: The chaos is the point.

Truth #2: Team Reality is bigger than it seems.

Truth #3: Facebook owns this.

Truth #4: When we go to work, we're in the fight.

Truth #5: It's about minority rule.

Truth #6: The only thing that can save us is…us.

Please take a moment to see how all these truths add up, because what happens in the weeks and months ahead will reverberate for at least a generation and we better be prepared.

And if you think journalism like Mother Jones'—that calls it like it is, that will never acquiesce to power, that looks where others don't—can help guide us through this historic, high-stakes moment, and you're able to right now, please help us reach our $350,000 goal by October 31 with a donation today. It's all hands on deck for democracy.

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