June 17, 2013

Efforts to reduce risks to kids run into a powerful foe

Overseen by a former chemical industry lobbyist, Maine’s Department of Environmental Protection resists regulations on substances that may be harmful to children and fetuses.

By Colin Woodard cwoodard@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

Second of three parts

click image to enlarge

click image to enlarge

Scientists and policy experts say unborn children are endangered by at least two types of chemicals for which regulation in Maine has stalled.

Gabe Souza

Additional Photos Below

Related headlines

From lobbyist to DEP commissioner

Click to Enlarge

Please click to enlarge


A Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram investigation has found Patricia Aho, a former industrial and corporate lobbyist who became commissioner of the state’s Department of Environmental Protection in 2011, has scuttled programs and fought against laws that were opposed by many of her former clients in the chemical, drug, oil, and real estate development industries. Under Aho, the DEP has:

Frozen the Kid Safe Products Act – a 2008 law to protect fetuses, babies and children from potentially damaging chemicals – by blocking efforts to bring more chemicals under the law’s jurisdiction, chemicals produced by Aho’s former lobbying clients.

Reduced enforcement actions by 49 percent against large developers and landowners. Aho had unsuccessfully fought to weaken many of the laws at issue as the longtime lobbyist of the Maine Real Estate and Development Association.

• Fought to roll back recycling programs that are strongly opposed by former clients of Aho and a still-active lobbyist, Ann Robinson, the governor’s regulatory reform adviser.

Oversaw a purge of information from the DEP’s website and a clampdown on its personnel, restricting their ability to communicate relevant information to lawmakers, the public, policy staff and one another.


SUNDAY: For two years, public servant Patricia Aho has overseen Maine’s environmental protection. But whom does she really serve? Our seven-month investigation points to her former corporate clients.

TODAY: Led by a former chemical industry lobbyist, the Maine DEP has stalled efforts to regulate substances that are potentially harmful to children and to the development of unborn fetuses. 

TUESDAY: So-called “product stewardship” regulations – even recycling efforts with industry and bipartisan support – find staunch resistance at the Maine DEP, where a former corporate lobbyist has taken the helm.

AUGUSTA — Phthalates, a class of chemicals used to soften plastics, are everywhere: in skin lotions and shampoos, glue and detergent, food containers and hospital feeding tubes. They’re also almost certainly in you and everyone you know. Fortunately, they pass out of your body quickly and appear to do no harm – unless you’re a male fetus.

Researchers believe that these chemicals could be wreaking havoc on the development of unborn boys’ genitals and reproductive systems with lasting consequences for the rest of their lives. The chemicals are known to block androgen, a key hormone that fosters male sexual development in the womb, which in turn can lead to undescended testicles, reduced penis size and poor fertility in adulthood.

“If you can reduce the phthalates in moms, that’s definitely something we should do,” says Shanna Swan, a national expert on the chemicals who works at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City.

Which is why the Maine Center for Disease Control & Prevention included seven phthalates on its short list of the most pressing chemicals to consider for regulation under the Kid Safe Products Act, a 2008 law designed to phase out toxic chemicals in toys, car seats, sippy cups, and other children’s products. It wasn’t an easy list to make: the CDC culled 49 priority chemicals from 1,384 worrisome substances it had identified.

Every chemical on the list has been found 1) to have been detected in humans, their homes or household products; and 2) to be either a carcinogen, neurotoxin or substance that harms hormone production, organs, or fetal or childhood development. In November, four of the phthalates on Maine’s list were banned from all consumer products by Denmark, and the European Union has banned three of them from children’s toys since 1999.

“They’re all bad and they’re common,” says Mike Belliveau, executive director of the Maine-based Environmental Health Strategy Center, which advocates nationally for chemical policy reform and strongly supports the law. “Some are hormone-disrupting and some are cancer-causing and some are long-lived in the environment and the food web.”

But Maine Department of Environmental Protection Commissioner Patricia Aho – a chemical industry lobbyist who took the helm at the DEP in 2011 –  has stalled efforts to regulate these substances, all of which are potentially harmful to children or to pregnancies.

A seven-month investigation of the DEP by the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram found that the department staff is under pressure not to vigorously implement or enforce certain laws opposed by the commissioner’s former lobbying clients. Documents and interviews with current and former staff members reveal a pattern of deference to industrial interests once represented by Aho when she worked for Pierce Atwood, the state’s largest law and lobbying firm, including producers of chemicals and products likely to run afoul of the new chemical law.

Aho had fought to stop the Kid Safe Products Act from becoming law in 2008, when she was a lobbyist for AstraZeneca pharmaceuticals, the American Petroleum Institute and lead paint maker Millennium Holdings, lobbying disclosures show.  Just weeks before being appointed to the DEP, Aho was working as the principal lobbyist for the American Chemistry Council, which also opposed the law and has sought to weaken it.

She isn’t the only figure associated with Gov. Paul LePage’s administation to have represented corporate opponents of the law.

Ann Robinson, the governor’s transition co-chair and informal regulatory reform adviser, is a lobbyist at Preti Flaherty, another large law firm. She fought the Kid Safe Products Act in 2008 on behalf of two clients – the trade group Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America and the drugmaker Merck – and her firm was hired by the Toy Industry Association of America to support passage of a 2011 bill that would have curtailed the law.

(Continued on page 2)

Were you interviewed for this story? If so, please fill out our accuracy form

Send question/comment to the editors

Additional Photos

click image to enlarge

Patricia Aho, commissioner of the Maine Department of Environmental Protection, is shown at a public hearing in the Hancock County town of Aurora earlier this month. In 2008, when she was lobbying for a number of corporate interests, Aho had fought to stop the Kid Safe Products Act from becoming law. And just weeks before she was appointed to the DEP, Aho was working as the principal lobbyist for the American Chemistry Council, which also opposed the law and has sought to weaken it.

Carl D. Walsh/Staff Photographer


Further Discussion

Here at PressHerald.com we value our readers and are committed to growing our community by encouraging you to add to the discussion. To ensure conscientious dialogue we have implemented a strict no-bullying policy. To participate, you must follow our Terms of Use.

Questions about the article? Add them below and we’ll try to answer them or do a follow-up post as soon as we can. Technical problems? Email them to us with an exact description of the problem. Make sure to include:
  • Type of computer or mobile device your are using
  • Exact operating system and browser you are viewing the site on (TIP: You can easily determine your operating system here.)