Got safety? Every day, Maine kids are exposed to bisphenol-A from canned foods, toxic flame retardants from couches and dangerous chemicals seeping from plastics. Scientists have linked some chemical exposures to harmful effects to the brain and reproductive health and to certain cancers, obesity and other chronic diseases.
Mainers deserve to know that the household products they buy are free from dangerous chemicals that can harm the health of their families. But until we fix our badly broken chemical safety system, there’s no guarantee.
Today, no government agency certifies the safety of the thousands of chemicals used in everyday products. Chemicals are assumed innocent until proven guilty, rather than first proven safe. And most chemicals haven’t even been tested for health and safety hazards.
Pregnant women and young children face greater risks from toxic chemicals, according to leading doctors. Early childhood development takes place during a critical window of vulnerability. Toxic chemicals and other stressors can lead to a lifetime of poor health and a constant struggle to succeed in school and on the job.
Consider the widely used chemicals known as phthalates, which are hormone disrupters. Research shows that when pregnant women are exposed to phthalates, their children are more likely to have certain birth defects, cancer and abnormal growth and development. These chemicals can also cause behavior and learning problems and trigger asthma in children.
Phthalates are among the 62,000 chemicals “grandfathered in” when the federal Toxic Substances Control Act was first passed nearly 40 years ago. The law requires no chemical testing for safety and inhibits the Environmental Protection Agency’s ability to take action on known hazards.
With its limited authority, the EPA has required testing for about 200 chemicals and has been able to regulate only five of them. Despite the failure of the Toxic Substances Control Act, the law has never been updated.
Fortunately, states have stepped in where the federal government has failed to act to protect family health. In the last decade, dozens of popular state laws have phased out the use of mercury, lead and flame retardants such as PBDEs in consumer products. So far, Maine, California and Washington state have enacted comprehensive safe-chemical policies.
In 2008, the Maine Legislature passed the Kid-Safe Product Act with overwhelming bipartisan support. Under this law, Maine can require industry to identify which products contain chemicals of high concern and replace them with safer alternatives when available. Two rules adopted under the law prohibit the sale of BPA-containing baby bottles, sippy cups and baby food packaging.
But Maine can’t continue to go it alone. There are too many chemical threats and limited state resources. We need real reform at the federal level to protect the health of Maine families and all Americans.
The good news is that everyone finally agrees that safer chemicals reform is long overdue. Even the chemical industry has come to the table in response to growing public demand and state restrictions.
Negotiations are under way in the U.S. Senate, and it’s possible that legislation will soon be introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives to overhaul the Toxic Substances Control Act.
The U.S. House bill will measure up against meaningful Toxic Substances Control Act reform if three principles are met.
• First, federal safety standards must be strictly health-based and fully protect vulnerable populations, including pregnant women, young children and others most susceptible to harmful chemicals.
• Second, the EPA must have full authority and deadlines to act decisively to identify and restrict the most dangerous chemicals in order to protect public health and the environment.
• Finally, state authority must be preserved to protect family health from chemicals, especially if the federal government fails to take timely protective action. We need a balanced approach that honors states’ rights and values a federal-state partnership on chemicals management.
The bottom line is that real reform must protect the health of Maine families from dangerous chemicals. When all Americans can shop with confidence in the health and safety of everyday products, we’ll know the system’s finally working.
— Special to the Press Herald