State identifies toxic chemicals

Posted July 17, 2009, at 11:58 p.m.

The Maine Department of Environmental Protection and the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention on Friday released a list of about 1,700 “chemicals of high concern”— substances that pose a significant risk to human health that also are used in manufacturing common consumer goods.

The release of the list, mandated by a state law passed in 2008, was hailed by state officials and environmental health advocates as an important step toward protecting Maine’s natural environment, as well as children and women of childbearing age, from the toxic effects of chemicals. But a spokesman for the chemical industry expressed concern that Maine may not have the resources to accurately identify or regulate chemicals that pose the greatest risk.

“Increasing public awareness of toxic chemicals and their presence in children’s products will promote the use of safer chemicals in Maine and move us toward our long-term goal of protecting the public and the environment,” said DEP Commissioner David Littell.

At 83 pages, the list includes many compounds whose names would be unfamiliar to most people. But some, such as lead, mercury and formaldehyde, are widely recognized for their toxic effects on babies and young children.

Others, such as phthalates, bisphenol-A and deca, have become more familiar in recent years as public health and environmental groups have sounded the alarm about their presence in household goods.

Infant formula, plastic shower curtains, toys, cosmetics, furniture and home electronics are among the products that can contain and emit the toxic chemicals.

Littell said the list was distilled by DEP and Maine CDC staff from existing rosters of toxic substances developed by the federal Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the World Health Organization and other groups.

Despite the length of the chemicals list, the law that created it calls for action to be taken on a minimum of just two. The next step is for agency staff to select two or more “priority chemicals” that could be prohibited in products sold in Maine. Those chemicals can be banned only if safer alternatives are available at a comparable cost. The priority chemicals must be named by Jan. 1, 2011.

Littell said Maine and Washington are leaders among the 50 states in regulating the presence of toxic chemicals in consumer goods.

“Far too often we are forced to confront the risks and benefits of chemicals in products only after we discover they are present in children’s bodies at levels of possible concern,” said Dr. Dora Anne Mills, director of the Maine CDC. “We need to be assured that children’s products are safe from toxic chemicals when they are put on the market. The Maine [chemicals of high concern] list is an important first step toward that critical goal.”

Also applauding the release of the list on Friday was House Speaker Hannah Pingree, D-North Haven.

“Maine is being bold, and other states and the federal government are watching what we are doing,” said Pingree. “This list may seem like a small thing, but it is moving the national debate forward and the result will be safer products for Mainers and, hopefully, all Americans.”

In 2007, Pingree was one of 13 Mainers from across the state who submitted specimens of blood, urine and hair for testing at independent laboratories. The samples were tested for the presence of 71 toxic substances, including flame retardants, chemicals used in water-repellent clothing, nonstick cookware, and plastics, and toxic elements such as lead, arsenic and mercury. The testing found 46 of the 71 chemicals in the samples. Pingree had among the highest level of phthalates, described in the test reports as “hormone-disrupting chemicals that threaten normal development and reproductive health.”

The report of the testing was used to support the passage of the 2008 Kids Safe Products Act, which mandated the creation of the list released Friday.

Michael Belliveau of the Environmental Health Strategy Center, a Maine-based nonprofit organization, said Friday’s listing should “send a signal” to manufacturers.

“Hundreds of these chemicals, known to wreak havoc on our hormone systems and cause cancer and learning disabilities, are in the products used by Maine families every day and concern is building among the public about the long-term effects on our health,” he said.

Roger Bernstein, vice president of state government affairs for the American Chemistry Council, said Friday that the organization is not opposed to states working to identify and regulate chemicals in consumer products.

But many states lack sufficient resources to develop a “science-based” method for determining the actual risk posed by certain chemicals, he said.

“We don’t think the legislation in Maine was science-based enough,” he said. “It was almost driven by a zero-risk principle.” Bernstein said such an approach is “neither realistic nor informative” when determining risk. The organization will work with Maine DEP staff to identify the short list of high priority chemicals for further regulation, he said.

The American Chemistry Council opposed the passage of the Kids Safe Products Act in Maine.

On the Web: www.maine.gov/dep/oc/safechem

mhaskell@bangordailynews.net

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