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Let's pass toxic chemical reforms -- but let's do it right

My Yupik name is Akaay. My English name is Tiffany Immingan. I am a Siberian Yupik youth from St. Lawrence Island, Alaska, located in the northern Bering Sea. I was raised in the community of Savoonga. My people are hunters, whalers, food gatherers, singers and dancers. I am grateful for having a wonderful family who taught me our cultural and traditional values of living in a community and in harmony with our lands and waters.

Having toxin-free food, air and water is an essential part of our traditional values. We cannot be healthy if our environment is not healthy. Unfortunately, we are being exposed to toxic chemicals in our environment, our homes and our workplaces every day. Chemicals produced far away are transported into the Arctic by air and ocean currents and accumulate into the traditional foods that we have relied on for generations for our well-being. This means we are even more exposed and harmed by toxic chemicals. On St. Lawrence Island we are also exposed to toxic chemicals from two abandoned military sites. As if this were not enough, we even get more exposure from some of the products we buy at the store. Even children's furniture contains known cancer-causing chemicals such as flame retardants.

As a result of these daily exposures to toxic chemicals, those of us who live in remote places like Alaska and the Arctic have some of the highest levels of toxic chemicals in our own bodies. On St. Lawrence Island we have very high levels of PCBs in our traditional foods and in our bodies, up to 10 times higher than average U.S. levels. Yupik women within the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta area of Alaska have the highest levels of PBDEs -- toxic, flame-retardant chemicals -- in their blood. These chemicals have been linked to serious diseases such as cancer, diabetes, learning disabilities, birth defects and reproductive harm. People in my community are being harmed by all these diseases. Last year, we lost 19 people from cancer in a community of about 1,200. How can we expect to be healthy if we have these toxins in our own bodies? If we want to prevent illnesses such as cancer we must do whatever we can to reduce unnecessary exposure to toxic chemicals. This includes changing the current chemical policy system that is harming communities like mine.

Our toxic chemicals laws are badly broken. Chemical companies are not required to show that the chemicals they use to make the products we buy are safe for human health and the environment. The burden of proof is upon us to show that the chemicals are causing the harm. This is unacceptable. Communities like mine are working on reform for safer chemical laws that protect our human health. The federal law on toxic chemicals, the Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976, has never been updated. Last year, senators in Congress introduced a toxic chemicals bill called the Chemical Safety Improvement Act (S.1009). Sens. Mark Begich and Lisa Murkowski are co-sponsors of this bipartisan bill. Sadly, this bill is not good enough as it is and fails to adequately protect the health of communities like mine, which are also called hot spots -- communities that are disproportionately harmed by toxic chemicals.

I am grateful to live in a community that cares about this issue. In response to the CSIA, the Native villages of Gambell and Savoonga on St. Lawrence Island passed their own resolutions in support of strengthening the CSIA to protect vulnerable populations such as elders, children, pregnant women and hot spot communities from exposure to toxic chemicals. Both communities introduced an identical resolution during the 2013 Alaska Federation of Natives Convention. It was the first time I attended an AFN Convention and it was awesome to see that they passed the toxins resolutions submitted by the two communities of St. Lawrence Island (Resolution 13-23). What a great victory! I had the amazing opportunity to travel to Washington, D.C., for a Stroller Brigade for Safer Chemicals to hand-deliver those resolutions -- and hundreds of petitions -- to our senators to ensure our voice is part of the decision that affects our health and well-being.

Everyone who truly cares about the health of Alaskans must voice their support for stronger toxic chemicals laws. Thirty-seven years of a broken chemical system is enough. We want chemical policy reform, but we want to ensure that it is done right.

Tiffany Immingan is from Savoonga, where she is director of the food bank.

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, e-mail commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.