AUGUSTA, Maine — More than 70 people called on the LePage administration Tuesday to require disclosure of potentially dangerous chemicals commonly found in consumer products.
At a hearing before the Maine Department of Environmental Protection, parents, doctors, business owners and public health experts asked the agency to step up regulation of phthalates, a group of chemicals used to soften plastics that studies have linked to serious health problems, such as reproductive birth defects among boys and higher rates of asthma and allergies, according to the Alliance for a Clean and Healthy Maine.
The alliance, a coalition of environmental and health organizations, on May 14 delivered more than 2,000 signatures to the DEP, urging the agency to adopt a requirement that manufacturers report which products sold in the state contain phthalates.
Phthalates are 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, shampoos, makeup and nail polishes.
Phthalates can escape from products into dust and the air, entering the body through breathing, eating and skin contact. Some studies have found phthalates can disrupt male hormones early in life, while others have tied them to slowed brain development and immune system problems.
The chemicals already are banned in toys and products marketed to children under 3.
Earlier this month, an advisory panel of the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission issued a report recommending that the temporary ban on five phthalates used in children’s toys be made permanent. The panel also noted that food, beverages and drugs lead to the highest exposures of some phthalates, rather than children’s toys and personal care products. Phthalates are used in food processing and packaging.
While the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has found widespread phthalate exposure among Americans, it cautions that the health effects remain unknown. Finding detectable amounts of phthalates in the body doesn’t mean that exposure will harm a person’s health, according to the CDC.
In a Tuesday letter to Maine DEP Commissioner Patricia Aho, a group of 16 scientists and physicians argued that mounting evidence supports the conclusion that phthalates pose a danger to human health. Studies published in leading peer-reviewed medical journals link phthalate exposure to adverse effects on male sexual development and function, the immune system and behavior, they wrote.
“We believe that the scientific basis for such action on phthalates is well founded, and that the lack of disclosure of phthalates in most consumer products presents a serious impediment to efforts to reduce human exposure, especially to vulnerable populations such as pregnant women and young children,” wrote the group, which included Dr. Deborah Rice, a retired Maine CDC toxicologist.
Maine DEP has identified several phthalates as “chemicals of high concern” under Maine’s Toxics Chemical in Children’s Products Law. Attendees of Tuesday’s hearing asked DEP to give four of those chemicals “priority status” under the act, a designation that would allow further regulatory action.
The proposed rule does not require labeling of products containing phthalates. Instead, manufacturers would report to the DEP, which would then post the information online for consumers.
In March, the Alliance for a Clean and Healthy Maine tested 25 Mainers, including several lawmakers, for phthalates in their blood. Each member tested positive, some at levels much higher than the national average.
Paige Holmes, a 34-year-old mother of two young boys from Lisbon, said her jaw dropped when she learned she had the highest phthalates level of anyone in the group. She tries to avoid phthalates by using glass and stainless steel containers instead of plastic and switching out her vinyl shower curtain for a cloth one. She also buys organic and local foods and reads product labels to limit her family’s exposure to chemicals.
“But phthalates are not listed on the labels of products,” she said at the hearing. “In fact, manufacturers use the term ‘fragrance’ on labels to hide any number of chemicals, including phthalates, which might be in the product. So, despite being an avid label reader, I am left in the dark, unable to protect my family from these harmful chemicals.”
Jeff Gearhart, research director for the Ecology Center in Ann Arbor, Michigan, which has tested nearly 15,000 products for chemical hazards, called the proposal a “common sense effort” toward better understanding the prevalence of phthalates and human exposure to the chemicals.
The four phthalates under consideration are: di(2-ethylhexyl) phthalate, or DEHP; dibutyl phthalate, or DBP; benzyl butyl phthalate, or BBP; and diethyl phthalate, known as DEP.
All of the individuals signed up to speak at the 1 p.m. hearing supported the proposed rule.
The DEP will collect public comments on the proposal through Sept. 29. The agency then has 120 days to act on the proposal, but isn’t required under law to take any action.
Jessamine Logan, a DEP spokeswoman, said the agency will consider the proposal as required by law and “review all of the comments before making a decision.” She said in May that the effects of phthalates on public health are still debated by the scientific community.