AUGUSTA, Maine — The test results are in for 25 Mainers who recently volunteered to test their bodies for a battery of chemicals commonly found in consumer products.
Every participant, from current and former lawmakers to mothers and an electrician, tested positive for 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, a coalition of environmental and health organizations that announced the findings Tuesday afternoon at a State House event. Levels in some participants far exceeded national averages.
Paige Holmes, 34, who lives in Lisbon with her two young sons, 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. Since becoming pregnant with her first boy seven years ago, she has taken steps — from buying organic and local foods to making her own household cleaners to reading product labels — to limit her family’s exposure to chemicals.
So she was astounded to discover she had the highest overall level of phthalates in the study group. Two types of phthalates commonly found in personal care products were detected in her body at levels higher than those of more than 90 percent of all Americans.
“I’ve done so much, I had thought, to protect my family, and then to see that I had the highest levels despite everything I had done to be proactive about this was just really shocking,” Holmes said.
She wants to see policymakers take action and manufacturers begin to disclose the use of phthalates in their products.
“The reality is you can’t really shop your way out of the problem, because this information is not available,” Holmes said.
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, 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 slowing brain development and immune system problems.
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.
Pregnant women and children are more vulnerable to phthalates and also face higher exposures, according to the Maine report. By reducing testosterone and thyroid hormones, phthalates particularly threaten early childhood development, but also pose risks to teens and adults, the report states, adding that there’s “likely no safe level of exposure to hormone disrupting chemicals.”
Phthalates are already banned in toys and products marketed to children under three, and all seven types tested in the Maine study have been targeted by various state, federal and European agencies, according to the report.
The Maine “biomonitoring” study measured phthalate exposure through urine tests, finding the adult participants were exposed to higher levels of three types of phthalates than other Americans on average, and to lower levels of two other types. Eight Mainers were in the top five percent of U.S. exposures for five phthalates, while another four were in the top 10 percent.
Also participating in the study, among others, were current and former lawmakers Maine Democratic Sens. Emily Cain and Geoff Gratwick; former Democratic House Speaker Hannah Pingree; Republican state Rep. Don Marean of Hollis; Democratic Rep. Gay Grant from Gardiner and former Republican Rep. Meredith Strang-Burgess from Cumberland.
Over the last decade, Americans’ exposure has only partially declined for four phthalates while significantly increasing for three others, the report states.
“No child should be exposed to chemicals that cause learning disabilities, reproductive problems, obesity and asthma,” Emma Halas O’Connor, coordinator for the Alliance for a Clean and Healthy Maine, said in a press release Tuesday. “This report brings together the medical science on phthalates, the sources of exposure in our homes, and the human stories behind this pervasive and dangerous chemical. It also offers a sensible path forward for manufacturers and policymakers.”
The report recommends that the Maine Department of Environmental Protection use its authority under the Kid Safe Products Act to designate phthalates as priority chemicals, allowing the state to take action to remove them from products. Under the act, the state has already designated two other hormone-disrupting chemicals, bisphenol A and nonylphenol ethoxylates, as priority chemicals.
The alliance also recommends requiring manufacturers to publicly report which of their products contain specific phthalates, and urges consumers to demand phthalate-free products. Alternatives to the chemicals are widely available, the report states.
Several cosmetic companies have ended their use of phthalates in nail polish, while Procter & Gamble and Johnson & Johnson have pledged to eliminate their use of the phthalate DEP, according to the report. Target and Walmart require many of their suppliers to disclose the use of phthalates.
A citizen’s petition has been launched to name four phthalates as priority chemicals and require manufacturers to provide information on which products contain phthalates.
The new study marks the second time the Alliance for a Clean and Healthy Maine has tested Mainers for chemicals. In a 2007 biomonitoring study, the alliance found high levels of a range of industrial chemicals in the bodies of 13 Maine people.
Correction: This article has been updated to remove Rep. Corey Wilson from the list of lawmakers participating in the study. Wilson did not end up taking part in the final study.