Maine took a small but important step in reducing the prevalence of toxic chemicals in everyday items Wednesday when the governor signed an order changing state purchasing policies to prefer safer alternatives. The order also boosts research and development into safer chemicals and bio-based products.
Most people don’t realize that chemicals linked to cancer, learning disabilities and illnesses are used in common household items. Brominated flame retardants, for example, are used to treat upholstery cushions, mattresses and the plastic casings around electronic components to make them flame resistant.
The chemicals have been found in human breast milk and are known to harm brain development in laboratory animals. Repeat expose to airborne perchloroethylene, a chemical used in dry cleaning, may cause cancer, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.
To reduce the amount of such chemicals in Maine, the executive order requires state agencies to avoid products and services that use or release carcinogens when safer alternatives are available, effective and affordable. For example, the order calls for the use of non-lead wheel weights on state vehicles and the purchase of state uniforms that don’t require drycleaning with perchloroethylene.
As for affordability, plastics for electronics made without brominated flame retardants cost about twice as much. But, because the plastic is a small part of the overall production cost, using the alternative would add only about $7 to the cost of a $300 television set, according to a study by the University of Massachusetts at Lowell.
Other changes required by the executive order would save money. It requires the state to use an integrated pest management (IPM) approach at all its facilities. Schools already use this approach, which calls for the least toxic means of pest control. Some state facilities are now routinely sprayed, whether insects or weeds are present or not. Spraying only when necessary would save money and lessen exposure to toxins.
At the same time, the order creates a 12-member task force to develop policies for encouraging safer chemical alternatives for Maine consumers and for expanding research and development of such chemicals and products. Interface Fabrics in Guilford already uses corn-based fabric for some of its products. Corn-based plastic is better for the environment because it is a renewable resource, which oil, the standard basis for plastic, is not.
Also, corn-based plastic can be composted like other vegetable waste. It would like to buy similar material from Maine and it is working with researchers at the University of Maine to develop bio-products made from waste potatoes.
Expanding this research could help Aroostook County by creating a new market for potatoes. It could also lead to Maine-based companies to make and market bio-based products. Corn-based plastic is used in packaging for companies as diverse as eco-friendly grocer Wild Oats and retail giant Wal-Mart.
Encouraging safer chemicals and building green chemistry expertise in Maine will help the environment and the economy.