A few weeks ago, I had the privilege of hearing Dr. Steven Gilbert, founder of the Institute of Neurotoxicology and Neurological Disorders and Toxipedia, give a talk entitled “The Ethics of Epigenetics.” Epigenetics, an increasingly important concept in environmental health, introduces the possibility that environmental exposures can have trans-generational impacts. That is, certain compounds may be able to alter the way in which genes are expressed, so the effects of these exposures can manifest in the children and grandchildren of the exposed population.
As a graduate student in toxicology, the idea of epigenetics was not new to me. However, Dr. Gilbert incorporated a critical ethical dimension to his discussion that was inspiring and moving. He suggested the obvious yet often not explicit enough implication of epigenetics: that it demands an altered framework for policy and action, since what we are being exposed to (most of the time, without our consent) may impact not only ourselves but also future generations.
Mother’s Day may be an especially appropriate time to think about the consequences of epigenetics. As I celebrate my mother, I can’t help but think about how her mother’s exposures may have impacted her life and her health. I wonder the same about myself: how will my life course and health be affected by my mother’s and my grandmother’s exposures to chemicals? And, similarly, what about the effects of my own exposure to unregulated chemicals on my future children? (I should note, though, that epigenetic changes can also be passed down on the paternal side.)
How can we end this cycle? What will it take to ensure that Mother’s Day can be a celebration of family health instead of a reminder of family exposures and disease?
The only real solution is reform of the nation’s severely outdated and ineffective chemical safety law, the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA). We need a TSCA reform that is robust and can gain bipartisan support – now. Further delay is unethical, putting ourselves and our children at risk.