Two state agencies, the Department of Environmental Protection and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, earned our respect last year by designating 1,700 toxic substances as chemicals of high concern. Several environmental-health scientists whose research has identified such chemicals are the subject of two recent books: “The Body Toxic” by Nena Baker and “Poisoned Profits: The Toxic Assault on Our Children” by Philip and Alice Shabecoff. We owe a tremendous debt to both the researchers and the journalists who are making the facts accessible to a wide popular audience.
Now we know that toxic chemicals are linked to learning and developmental disabilities, neurological and endocrine-system damage, reproductive harm and cancer. A number of plasticizing chemicals come in for special scrutiny because of biomonitoring surveys that show detectable levels of these synthetic polymers in human tissue. The federal CDC body-burden studies, as well as the “Body of Evidence” survey conducted in Maine two years ago, confirm that we are all routinely exposed to industrial toxins in air (both inside and out), in water and in food, cosmetics and cleaning products.
Evidence of the harm hormone-disrupting substances cause, especially to children, is compelling: bisphenol-A, or BPA, leaches from hard polycarbonate bottles, pacifiers, toys, tin-can linings, etc., and is linked to numerous endocrine disorders, including cancer. Perfluorinated chemicals for nonstick coatings and stain-water re-sistance persist for years in the body, potentially leading to damage in all organs. Phthalates, used to soften plastic and to fix persistent chemical fragrances in personal-care products, are absorbed from vinyl (polyvinyl chloride, or PVC) items, including shower curtains, toys and a wide range of cosmetics, putting us at risk for re-productive and neurological damage. A fourth dangerous class of chemicals is polybrominated flame retardants — PBDE additives to plastic in computers, TVs, mattresses and bedding — compounds that impair learning and behavior and may be implicated in sudden infant death syndrome. Synergistic reactions among chemicals compound the problem for consumers.
According to a new Maine statute — the Kid-Safe Products law — members of the Board of Environmental Protection will select from the list of toxic chemicals a minimum of two to be labeled priority chemicals, subject to prohibition and-or stringent regulation. At a hearing on Dec. 17, the BEP heard from two dozen con-cerned citizens and from 10 chemical- and toy-industry lobbyists determined to undercut the new law. To counter their disinformation the salient points to make in written testimony are the following:
• No further testing is needed, especially not repeated, unnecessary and cruel testing on lab animals. Evidence already gathered is sufficient.
• Chief among the criteria for prioritizing chemicals is the factor of novelty; most items made with polymers, whether toys or household goods or cosmetics, are arguably novel or inessential and therefore expendable. When a substitute is readily available, the toxic product should be banned.
• Because the new law directs that industry be assessed fees to cover costs of managing data, BEP should not limit its choices to only two priority chemicals.
Given the high levels of cancer, autism and other neurological illness in Maine, and the astronomical medical costs to manage them, we call on BEP to target all the lowest-hanging fruit that were bioassayed in “Body of Evidence” — all the phthalates, PBDEs, PFCs and BPA, in addition to PVC, formaldehyde, PERC, styrene, toluene, and xylene and at least three toxic metals (arsenic, lead and mercury).
Conspicuously missing from this list are organochlorine and organophosphate pesticides — acknowledged to be among the most dangerous chemicals in use — because pesticides are one of several chemical classes exempt from requirements of the new law (their regulation is left to the industry-friendly Pesticide Control Board in Maine). The U.S. has failed to endorse the 2004 U.N. Stockholm Treaty on persistent organic pollutants, under which several organochlorines are restricted, and will not be able to sign it until specific changes are made to both the federal pesticide statute and the Toxic Substances Control Act. To support that effort, go to safer-chemicals.org; progress made by that national coalition — in tandem with Maine’s campaign for safer chemicals — will set the stage for reform of profligate pesticide use here.
Submit comments by Jan. 11 to the BEP at 17 State House Station, Augusta 04333. (firstname.lastname@example.org).
Jody Spear lives in Harborside.