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Chemicals in your water bottle? Get informed, use your buying power to help fix the deadly situation

Posted Nov. 12, 2013, at 2:29 p.m.

What do a journalist, nurse, construction worker, social worker, nonprofit advocate, cleaning woman and a couple of working mothers have in common? We are eight women representing Maine who recently joined hundreds of others from across the country in a stroller brigade and day of action in Washington, D.C. We are united in our commitment to fix our nation’s broken chemical safety system. Only when we all work together will we make our homes safer and families healthier.

When my daughter was little, we made beaded charm bracelets. When I discovered there was lead in the charms, I did some research. I found there could be lead, cadmium, bisphenol A and many other toxic chemicals in common children’s and home products. I also found that all of these chemicals can lead to serious health effects like learning disabilities, reproductive harm and cancer.

That’s why I became involved with passing the Kid Safe Products Act in Maine, which has helped ban BPA from baby bottles, sippy cups, baby food and infant formula packaging. But, there is so much more to be done.

We are eight different women with eight different stories, but we all went to D.C. because our federal chemical safety system is ineffective and woefully outdated. Fortunately, Congress now has a realistic chance to do something about it. The Chemical Safety Improvement Act, which Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, is a co-sponsor, is a bipartisan attempt to better regulate chemicals in our everyday products. That’s the good news.

But the bill does not go far enough to have a significant impact on the problem, and in some cases, it is even less restrictive than the current broken system.

We had the opportunity to discuss our concerns directly with Collins, as well as with Sen. Angus King and Reps. Chellie Pingree and Mike Michaud. We presented them with petitions signed by more than 2,100 Mainers who share our concerns, and we made the following suggestions to strengthen the act:

1. Preserve state authority. In Maine, we have made great progress in protecting families from toxic chemicals like BPA, lead, arsenic and certain flame-retardants. The pre-emption provisions in the current version of the act would largely prevent states from taking stronger action to address chemicals. We cannot let a federal bill roll back Maine’s protection against some of the worst toxic chemicals.

2. Protect pregnant women and children. They are more susceptible to harm from toxic chemicals. Because of their size, and because they are still developing, fetuses, babies and toddlers are disproportionately affected by lower exposures to chemicals.

3. Expedite action on the worst chemicals. The act should include deadlines and timetables to ensure the implementation of the law in a timely fashion.

4. Collect more data to effectively prioritize chemicals. Chemicals should be proven safe to remain in use, not cause harm before any action is taken.

I believe that each member of Maine’s congressional delegation heard our concerns about the act and agreed that we desperately need to fix our broken chemical safety system.

So what can we do next? First, we must educate ourselves about the toxic chemicals in our everyday products. There are many good websites from the Environmental Protection Agency and organizations like the Environmental Working Group and Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families.

One thing you will learn is that manufacturers are not required to label or test the chemicals they are putting in our everyday products. We should not need degrees in chemistry to be good parents or consumers.

Second, we can share our knowledge with others and let our elected officials at the state and federal levels know we want them to work together to fix this deadly situation.

Third, we can use our market power. We can call or write a letter to the manufacturer of our favorite shampoo, our favorite canned food and our favorite piece of children’s clothing. We can tell them to remove the phthalates, BPA, flame retardants and other toxins from our consumer products. Then we can act with our wallets. Buying safer products protects our families while pressuring manufacturers to produce safer alternatives.

And finally, we can remember what Margaret Mead told us: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

Bettyann Sheats of Auburn is the owner of Finishing Touches Shower Doors.

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