Maine’s cancellation of hearing on potentially harmful chemical spurs questions

Posted March 10, 2011, at 9:51 p.m.
Last modified March 11, 2011, at 7:42 a.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — In mid-December, the state’s six-month scientific review of priority chemicals slated for regulation in the state’s Kid-Safe Products Act, including brominated flame retardants, was finished.

According to documents obtained through a Freedom of Access request, toxicologists with the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention and review staff at the Maine Department of Environmental Protection were prepared to recommend that manufacturers using flame retardants report how much of the chemical was used in their products.

The reason, the report said, was that brominated flame retardants, constituting a “family” of 100 chemicals, were shown to be toxic and potentially carcinogenic.

The Dec. 16 memo to the Board of Environmental Protection from the agency reviewing brominated flame retardants recommended a Jan. 20 public hearing to take comments for and against the ban.

The hearing never happened. Some environmentalists worry it never will.

Their fears are driven by Gov. Paul LePage’s controversial stance against regulating bisphenol-A, which the Board of Environmental Protection voted in December to incorporate in the Kid-Safe law. LePage wants to repeal the law, triggering claims that the governor is catering to a powerful chemical lobby that spent significant dollars in the 2010 election and reportedly influenced his initial regulatory reform package.

A spokesman for the governor said Thursday that the administration is in the process of reviewing the science behind the proposed flame retardant regulations and that a decision on the state’s six-month analysis was forthcoming.

“If clear consensus science appears on BFRs, then I’m sure the governor will proceed with the regulation,” Demeritt said.

But some environmental groups worry that LePage’s dismissive comments about the dangers of bisphenol-A foreshadow a predetermined assessment of the science behind the dangers of brominated flame retardants.

“I would like to give the governor and the administration the benefit of the doubt and trust that they’ll give the science a fair shake and put it out there for deliberation,” said Matt Prindiville, a lobbyist for the Natural Resources Council of Maine. “But based upon the governor’s actions and rhetoric, we have little confidence that they’ll follow through with the hard work that’s been done by the state’s experts.”

The uneasiness has fueled questions of whether LePage’s transition team pressured Gov. John Baldacci’s administration to halt the rule-making process for brominated flame retardants in mid-December. Documents from that period indicate the BEP was on the verge of posting public hearing notices.

Demeritt said he had no knowledge of any transition team member asking Baldacci’s administration to stop the hearing process. David Farmer, Baldacci’s deputy chief of staff, said he could not recall such a request from LePage’s team.

Farmer said the outgoing administration had decided early not to advance rule-making that would carry over into the LePage regime.

“I want to stress that Gov. Baldacci was, and is, very much in favor of regulating BFRs and the Kid-Safe Products Act,” Farmer said. “We decided early on that unless it was routine rule-making that we weren’t going to push anything policy-related that would affect the next administration. It didn’t make sense, given the big differences between the two administrations.”

Documents from the Freedom of Access request revealed a rigorous and compelling scientific case for regulating brominated flame retardants. The review included more than a dozen analyses pointing to widespread concerns from the federal and international scientific community about the effects of flame retardant exposure.

The documents also show how many manufacturers have begun phasing out brominated flame retardants. However, according to one report, the chemical industry has avoided regulation by changing the compound structure of restricted flame retardants, making it difficult to test the new chemical’s effects on humans and the environment.

According to one study, the industry’s re-engineering was a driving force behind the state’s recommendation to regulate all brominated flame retardants.

“By designating the class of compounds, the department wishes to send a signal to the industry that BFRs … are of concern and that they need to consider other methods of achieving fire safety without posing hazards to children’s health,” the report said.

The Legislature voted along bipartisan lines in 2007 to approve a ban on the sale of products that use brominated flame retardants.

Prindiville said the case for regulating the flame retardants was solid.

“The good news is that we can have fire safety, healthy kids and a clean environment,” he said. “We don’t need to use these dangerous brominated flame retardants. There are safer technologies and chemicals that are widely available that meet the same fire safety standards without harming our kids.”

He said, “Parents shouldn’t have to get a Ph.D. in chemistry or toxicology to figure out what’s safe to bring into their home and what’s not. That’s the government’s job.”

See more news from the Sun Journal at http://www.sunjournal.com/.

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