They’re in the lunch boxes and backpacks youngsters take to school, the raincoats they wear during recess, the toys they play with after school.

They’re phthalates, chemicals that have been linked to serious health problems in kids, including birth defects and learning disabilities, and could lead to their developing cancer as adults. And given that phthalates can be found in hundreds of products – many more than can be listed in one paragraph – avoiding them is nearly impossible.

So how can parents limit their children’s exposure to these harmful compounds? Maine has a powerful policy tool that can advance this goal, if only it would be put to work. Regulators here have the authority to require companies to publicly report which products they sell contain phthalates. State officials should put this mandate in place if they want consumers to have the information they need to make safe choices for their children.

HAZARDOUS TO KIDS’ HEALTH

Phthalates (pronounced THAL-ates) are used primarily to soften vinyl plastic and make it more flexible. They’re also common in any products with a fragrance – not only perfume and shampoo but also laundry detergent and air fresheners. The compounds are easily inhaled after they escape into household dust; children can ingest them when they chew on toys.

By wreaking havoc with the system that governs human hormones, phthalates can cause damage that lasts a lifetime.

Boys exposed to high levels of phthalates in the womb are more likely than others to be born with deformed genitals and incompletely descended testicles, and their risk of testicular cancer later in life also is higher. For girls, greater exposure to phthalates in early childhood is associated with early puberty, which itself is linked to a higher risk of breast cancer in women. And boys and girls alike face learning and behavioral problems because of phthalate exposure.

Children are particularly vulnerable to the effects of phthalates and other toxins. Pound for pound, according to researchers, they eat more food, drink more water and take in more air than adults, so they’re more likely than adults to be exposed to harmful chemicals in that food, water or air. What’s more, their bodies and brains are still developing, and chemical exposure could do irreversible harm to that development.

Of course, parents can take steps to reduce phthalate exposure. They can avoid heating meals in plastic containers, a process that allows phthalates to leach into food. And they can buy products labeled “fragrance-free” or “unscented” – though these items may still contain fragrance ingredients. But even careful shoppers can wind up with high levels of phthalates in their bodies, the Alliance for a Clean and Healthy Maine advocacy group found in a recent study.

PUT POLICY REMEDY INTO ACTION

Consumer vigilance can accomplish only so much. To safeguard family safety, strong government policies are needed. Federal law doesn’t require manufacturers to list their chemical ingredients. However, Maine regulators have a lot of leverage in this regard, though they’ve been reluctant to use it: The 2008 Kid-Safe Products Act gives the Department of Environmental Protection the authority to force companies to disclose harmful chemicals in their products.

Mandating the disclosure of phthalates in consumer goods is a minor technical action that could have a major impact. Putting this information out there would make it easier for parents to avoid harmful products and give businesses an incentive to research and use safer alternatives. It would be the first step toward increasing public protection, the last one being an all-out ban.

Some will say that mandating phthalate disclosure will make Maine an outlier in the business community. But our state is already an outlier in another regard: our residents’ elevated chance, compared to people who live in other states, of developing and dying from cancer.

Weighing the chance that requiring disclosure will create an undue hardship for Maine businesses against the certainty that without further action, too many Maine people will fall victim to a deadly group of diseases, our priorities should be clear.

STAYING COMPETITIVE NATIONALLY

Moreover, California – with the biggest consumer market in the U.S. – is implementing a law requiring companies to identify products that contain chemicals deemed harmful, so any business that wants to remain competitive nationally will want to make sure that what it makes can be marketed there.

Every day, parents across Maine make critical choices as they strive to ensure their children’s well-being. By giving families the data they deserve to carry out informed decision-making and avoid hazardous chemicals, the DEP has the chance to help make sure that Maine kids are born and grow up healthy.