The Maine Legislature can help protect people and the environment from two groups of ubiquitous chemicals that threaten human health: phthalates and PFAS. In fact, members of the Environment and Natural Resources Committee took the first step this month when they sent LD 1433, the Safe Food Packaging Act, to the full Legislature for a vote.
A primary way that people are exposed to both groups of chemicals is through our food supply, including through food packaging. PFAS is found in packaging such as bakery bags, microwave popcorn bags and fast food wrappers. Phthalates enter our food supply in part through inks and adhesives as well as from gloves that are used to handle food.
Phthalates are used to soften and increase the flexibility of plastic and vinyl. They are used in many consumer products including cosmetics, personal care products, and plastic and vinyl toys.
How do they harm health? Phthalates are endocrine disruptors that change the way hormones work. Pregnant women, babies and toddlers are most at risk, and boys may suffer an increased risk of birth defects associated with testicular cancer, prostate cancer or difficulty in fathering a child.
Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances are generally referred to by their plural acronym, PFAS. PFAS are resistant to water, oil and heat, and their use has expanded rapidly since they were developed by companies in the mid-20th century. Today, PFAS’ nonstick qualities make them useful in products as diverse as food wrappers, umbrellas, tents, carpets and firefighting foam. The chemicals are also used in the manufacture of plastic and rubber, and in insulation for wiring.
In short, PFAS are all around us. And as a result, they have found their way into the soil and, especially in some regions, into our drinking water.
PFAS also increases the risk of some cancers, may lower a woman’s chance of getting pregnant, and have been associated with liver problems and increased cholesterol levels. PFAS chemicals do not break down. They persist in our bodies and our environment for years and even decades.
I am especially concerned about the health impacts of toxic chemical exposure from PFAS and phthalates on lower-income families, as well as children and teens whose young bodies are developing and whose potential parenting years are well in front of them. Packaged foods often have higher levels of phthalates, PFAS, and other chemicals that escape from food processing and packaging materials.
What can be done about these two toxic families of chemicals? Certainly, consumers can urge national retailers to make changes to ensure that phthalates and PFAS is not in packaging.
But states must also take action to create protective policy, especially in the face of inaction at the federal level.
Sponsored by Rep. Jessica Fay, D-Raymond, LD 1433 would update current Maine law by requiring manufacturers to phase-out PFAS and phthalates by 2022. It would also authorize the Department of Environmental Protection to name other priority chemicals in food packaging and require disclosure, assessment of alternatives or phase-out.
This legislation will also better protect the Maine environment. It will help prevent long-lasting toxic PFAS chemicals, especially, from entering the environment and drinking water supply when packaging is composted or landfilled.
LD 1433 is one of nine bills before the current Maine Legislature that is a priority for Maine’s Environmental Priorities Coalition, a partnership of 34 environmental, conservation and public health organizations representing more than 100,000 members.
State governments have a responsibility to protect the people of the state. We in the faith community affirm that task and view it as paralleling the work of God. As Psalm 12:5 states. “Because the poor are plundered and the needy groan, I will arise, says the Lord, and I will protect them from those who hurt them.”
Rev. Richard Killmer is a retired Presbyterian minister living in Yarmouth.