AUGUSTA, Maine — A group of doctors, parents and other activists is demanding the state require manufacturers to report the presence of potentially dangerous chemicals in products sold in Maine.
The group, Alliance for a Clean and Healthy Maine, delivered more than 2,000 signatures to the Department of Environmental Protection on Wednesday morning, urging the agency to adopt a requirement that manufacturers report which products sold in the state contain chemicals known as phthalates.
The DEP will have 60 days to initiate the rulemaking process to consider the rule. Ultimately, the decision will like with Commissioner Patricia Aho.
Phthalates are often used to soften plastic, and can be found in hundreds of consumer products, including vinyl flooring, garden hoses, shower curtains, inflatable toys, adhesives, detergents and raincoats. The chemicals are also a common ingredient in fragrance used in personal care products such as soaps, shampoo and nail polishes.
While the U.S Centers for Disease Control says the health risks of phthalates are unknown and stops short of saying exposure to the chemicals is necessarily harmful, a number of studies have linked the chemicals to several health problems: hormone disruption, birth defects, asthma, an increased risk of cancer and more.
“There’s certainly enough evidence now to put phthalates over the tipping point, in terms of there being enough scientific literature to strongly recommend significant caution on exposure,” said Dr. Steve Feder, a Boothbay Harbor pediatrician and president of the Maine chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics.
The alliance says the risks are especially severe for pregnant women and children. Phthalates are already banned in toys and products marketed to children younger than 3 years old, and all seven types tested in the Maine study have been targeted by various state, federal and European agencies.
The chemicals can escape from products into dust and the air, entering the body through breathing, eating and skin contact. In March, the group tested 25 Mainers, including several lawmakers, for phthalates in their blood, and found each member tested positive — some at levels much higher than the national average.
One of those was Megan Rice of Belgrade. She showed phthalate levels 75 percent higher than the average in Americans. She said she — like the others — found it impossible to pinpoint exactly how so much of the chemicals got into her body.
“You don’t have to know me for long to know I’m an extremely careful shopper, so it’s evident from my results that the information just isn’t out there to avoid phthalates,” she said.
Currently, several phthalates are identified by the state as “chemicals of high concern” under Maine’s Safer Chemicals in Children’s Products Act. The alliance is asking DEP to give four of those chemicals “priority status” under the act, a designation that would allow further regulatory action.
The group’s coordinator, Emma Halas O’Connor, said requiring companies to report which product had phthalates and which didn’t was a “modest proposal.”
“There’s no reason why parents shouldn’t have the right to know whether or not there’s phthalates in our products,” she said. “We’re not asking for products to be labeled, and we’re not asking for products to be banned, right now. We’re asking for this first important step to find out the information we need.”
Since 2010, there have been just two chemicals designated with priority status, but last week, the DEP added cadmium, mercury and arsenic to the list. The agency is now working with manufacturers to identify which of their children’s products contain any of those chemicals — and how much.
The alliance called that listing “symbolic,” and noted that Washington state had already catalogued which products contain arsenic, mercury and cadmium. Halas O’Connor said the state shouldn’t reinvent the wheel.
DEP spokeswoman Jessamine Logan said that while it will consider the alliance’s proposal as is required by law, the department is focused on its work on the three new priority chemicals. Maine statute requires the state to do its own work, not lean on Washington’s, she said.
“DEP takes its responsibility to protect public and environmental health very seriously. However, the effects of phthalates on public health are still debated by the scientific community,” she said. “Right now, the department is committed to effectively implementing and enforcing regulations around the newly designated three priority chemicals.”
BDN health editor Jackie Farwell contributed to this report.
Follow Mario Moretto on Twitter at @riocarmine.