One year ago today I started out on a journey along the Appalachian Trail. It was the first of 153 days I spent hiking from Georgia to Maine along this 2,181 mile corridor stretching all the way up the East Coast. My home, food, clothing, and gear were all contained in a 65-liter backpack I carried with me. Today, I live in an apartment, I take showers, drive my car, turn on the lights, and otherwise take part in the conveniences of modern living. With all that’s been going on with toxic chemical policy in Maine and in Washington, now seems like a good time to reflect on the recent changes I’ve made in my lifestyle, the “story of the stuff” that I own, use, ingest, and discard.
On the trail, everything you buy and use goes on your back. For food, I was consuming about 4,000 to 5,000 calories a day in the form of dried fruits, oats, cheese, bread, pasta, nuts, candy, and fresh fruits and vegetables when I could; bought at grocery stores along the way. I drank water from streams, treated with household chlorine bleach, stored in a BPA-free water bladder. I slept in a goose-down sleeping bag inside three-walled wooden lean-tos. I spent all day every day in the outdoors, breathing fresh air and traveling only by foot. Overall, my exposure to toxic metals like mercury, lead and cadmium, phthalates, PBDEs (flame retardant chemicals), PFCs (chemicals that repeal grease and water), and bisphenol-A (a chemical backbone of plastics) was probably below average but definitely not eliminated.
Today, it’s a different story. At my apartment in Brunswick I sit and sleep on furniture that leaches out a dangerous class of chemicals called polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs) because they’ve been coated with flame retardants (luckily newer furniture sold in Maine isn’t coated with the most toxic of these chemicals, Deca, thanks to NRCM’s hard work). I also spend a few hours a week in my car or vanpool where I’m exposed to industrial chemicals called phthalates –these are also in the mascara I use, the shower curtain in my bathroom, and lots of other places. Fortunately, the newer computers I use at home and work don’t contain lead, but I am likely exposed to more lead paint dust now, by spending time in old buildings, than when I spent all day every day outside for five months on the AT. Also luckily, even though I’m off the trail and using kitchen products, my exposure to BPA is not as high as it would have been before NRCM worked to ensure a ban of this endocrine-interrupting chemical in all reusable food and beverage containers in Maine. And while I’m still exposed through the cans and jars of food I eat, NRCM is petitioning the Board of Environmental Protection to place further restrictions on the sale of BPA-containing products.
While Maine is making some progress in phasing out toxic chemicals in some of the products that I, and all of us, use (whether we’re in the woods or at home), what we really need is federal level chemicals reform. Patchwork state policies that only address certain chemicals for certain products on various timelines are not an efficient or effective way to protect people from environmental exposure to known toxins. NRCM is working with other groups to ensure passage of the federal Safe Chemicals Act of 2011, which would overhaul the outdated and ineffective Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976. I’m glad that last week the Maine State Legislature called on Congress to take action on fixing our broken national chemicals policies.
A year ago at this time I was giddy, nervous, and excited – looking forward to the two thousand mile journey that lay ahead of me. Maine felt impossibly far away. Now that I live here and have a warm home and a bed to sleep in every night, I’m looking forward to the progress I know NRCM will continue to make to keep all of our homes safe.
– Abby King, NRCM Toxics Policy Advocate