March 17, 2010

Maine to consider tracking toxins in toys, products


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John Patriquin/ Staff Photographer: Tuesday, February, 26,2008. Portland resident Amanda Sears is a proponent of safe toys and is seen here playing with her 3 month old daughter Chloe Sawler in their Portland home.

Staff Writer

Maine would become one of the first states to track toxic chemicals in toys and household products under legislation proposed by Gov. John Baldacci and a Democratic leader in the Legislature.

Two bills, both of which will be debated at the State House on Thursday, would create lists of chemicals deemed to pose the greatest threats to public health.

Manufacturers would have to notify the state whenever the listed chemicals are in products sold here, and the state could ultimately ban products containing the chemicals.

The proposals are part of a growing movement by states to regulate chemicals in consumer products, in the wake of recalls of lead-tainted toys and reports of toxic chemicals in baby bottles and bath toys. Several other states are considering proposals for disclosure-and-tracking systems.

''We have angry parents, and a lot of the other states do, too,'' said House Majority Leader Hannah Pingree, D-North Haven, a sponsor of one of the bills.

Lawmakers in Maine have voted several times in recent years to phase out individual compounds, including a family of flame-retardant chemicals that were showing up in household dust and human breast milk.

Supporters say the new proposals represent a more comprehensive attack on the problem -- that modern products contain a variety of potentially toxic chemicals that are used without testing standards or disclosure requirements.

''There are many unsafe chemicals that are used regularly in consumer products. It doesn't have to be that way,'' said Amanda Sears, an advocate with the Maine Environmental Health Strategy Center, which supports more regulation. ''The consumer or a state regulator can't go into a store and say, 'Here's a product that contains the chemical that can harm a child's reproductive system and here is one that doesn't.' ''

Representatives of the American Chemistry Council plan to testify against the bills Thursday. The industry group issued a written response to questions for this story.

Federal rules already protect consumers, and will soon provide public information about more than 95 percent of the chemicals in commerce, according to an e-mail from Tiffany Harrington, a council spokeswoman.

''The American Chemistry Council does not think the proponents of these bills have made their case that the current system is broken and that the state needs to step in,'' she wrote. ''The states are ill-equipped, under funded and do not have the skill set, at this time, to take on this complicated and difficult endeavor.''

Representatives for the council have argued in other states that products cited as toxic have not been proven to harm children.

Scientists disagree about the risks posed by chemicals at levels contained in consumer products, saying there is a need for more research.

The Legislature's Natural Resources Committee will hold a public hearing on the two bills at 1 p.m. Thursday.

Under Baldacci's bill, L.D. 2210, the Maine Board of Environmental Protection would designate chemicals of concern, including toxins and cancer-causing compounds, one at a time.

Pingree's bill, L.D. 2048, would require the Department of Environmental Protection to review scientific research and develop a list of 100 chemicals that are most likely to come into contact with children and fetuses.

In both cases, manufacturers would have to report products containing the chemicals, and state officials could ultimately ban sales of those products, depending on the risks and alternatives.

Pingree's bill also calls for the state to share information on toxins as part of an interstate clearinghouse.

''The federal government should be taking action,'' she said, but ''we're not taking this on alone. We see this as a number of states banding together.''

Pingree has firsthand experience with some of the chemicals that are likely to make a state list.

Tests of her blood, done as part of a study last year, showed high levels of chemicals such as phthalates, which are used to soften plastic in children's toys and make fragrances in lotions and perfume last longer.

Some studies have linked phthalates to genital birth defects and developmental problems in boys, and to premature breast development in girls.

Some forms have been banned by the European Union and California.

Another candidate for the list would likely be bisphenol-A, a chemical used as a plastic stabilizer that has been shown to leach out of baby bottles and refillable water bottles.

Some states are considering bans based on research linking it to developmental problems in children.

Sears, of the Environmental Health Strategy Center, is the mother of a 3-month-old daughter and knows how hard it is for parents to avoid such chemicals.

She avoids the most common brands of baby bottles because they contain bisphenol-A.

She doesn't buy the soft plastic children's books because they can contain phthalates.

But she can't be sure about everything her daughter touches.

''The other day she grabbed (a plastic rattle) and put it to her mouth and I was totally excited at first. It was the first time,'' Sears said.

''But then my second thought immediately was, I don't know what that thing is made out of.''

Sears said most parents simply assume that manufacturers cannot put potentially dangerous chemicals in baby bottles and rubber duckies, at least not without warning them.

''It's not true, and it should be,'' she said.

Staff Writer John Richardson can be contacted at 791-6324 or at:

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