By Heather Spalding, Special to the BDN
Bangor Daily News op-ed
The season’s bright blue skies, sunshine, snowdrops, crocuses and longer days inspire us to tackle lots of dirty projects mounting around our homes, yards and workplaces. My spring cleaning to-do list gets longer by the day. Most of it feels manageable, but there is one thing I can’t tackle without the help of Maine’s Department of Environmental Protection.
No matter how much Yankee elbow grease I can muster, I can’t clear away some dangerous chemicals that find a way into my home in products my family uses every day. The culprits are phthalates (pronounced THAL-ates), a group of hormone-disrupting chemicals that are widely used in consumer products and are polluting Maine people.
Recent human health studies show that phthalate exposure causes birth defects of male sex organs, sperm damage, learning and behavior problems, asthma and allergies. Phthalates harm reproductive health through reduced fertility, premature birth, early puberty in girls, breast growth in boys, and increased risk of prostate and testicular cancer. Phthalates are also “obesogens” that interfere with fat-related hormones linked to obesity and metabolic disorder.
Children and pregnant women are more vulnerable to the adverse effects of phthalates and face higher exposures, but teens and adults also are at risk.
I recently learned about the levels of phthalates in my body by participating in a biomonitoring study conducted by the Alliance for a Clean and Healthy Maine. The report of findings, released last month and titled Hormones Disrupted: Toxic Phthalates in Maine People, revealed that phthalate contamination is widespread in Maine and likely affects all of us.
Twenty-five of us voluntarily participated by submitting urine samples to the Washington State Public Health Laboratories for testing. We come from different towns in Maine, have different jobs and are different ages. But each one of us had detectable levels of phthalates in our bodies, some at levels much higher than the national average. I was in the top 25 percent of U.S. exposure for two phthalates — DEHP (Di(2-ethylhexyl) phthalate) and DIDP (Diisodecyl phthalate).
How did these chemicals get into my body? Speculation is almost useless because phthalates are so widely used in consumer products. They’re in soft vinyl plastics, such as lunch boxes, backpacks, school supplies, rain jackets, packaging and flooring. They are also hidden behind the label “fragrance” in personal care products.
We have almost no vinyl in our home, and we use mostly fragrance-free personal care products, but I still have high levels of certain phthalates. Because manufacturers of products with these chemicals are not required to disclose ingredients, there is no way of knowing the source of my contamination and therefore, no way for me and my family to avoid future exposure. This is both frustrating and concerning.
There is a real need for research, information and public policy that will help parents protect our children from these dangerous chemicals. Already various state, federal and international agencies have taken action on phthalates because of scientific concern about hazards and exposures. But the Maine DEP has dragged its feet, even though it has an effective policy tool already in place — the landmark Kid-Safe Products Act, which passed almost unanimously in 2008 and has since been supported and updated by wide margins in the Legislature.
So parents such as myself are taking matters into their own hands. A citizen-initiated petition is being circulated that would initiate rulemaking before the Maine DEP on the reporting of phthalates in consumer products. The rule would elevate four phthalates to “Priority Chemical” status under the Kid-Safe Products Act and require manufacturers to report on which of its products sold in Maine contains the priority phthalates.
There is no doubt this information will empower consumers to avoid dangerous products and create market incentives for safer alternatives. This is certainly a reasonable baby step that Maine DEP can take.
We simply cannot shop our way out of exposure to toxic phthalates. It’s time for the Maine DEP to put “Designate Phthalates as Priority Chemicals under Maine’s Kid-Safe Products Act” on the top of its spring cleaning to-do list. Maine parents and pregnant women have a right to know which products contain dangerous phthalates.
Heather Spalding is the deputy director of the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association and lives in Palermo with her husband and two children.