New Report: Maine people are polluted with dangerous chemicals called phthalates
Citizen petition now underway to require companies to report their use of phthalates in consumer products
(MARCH 18, 2014 - AUGUSTA) Don Marean, a Republican state legislator from Hollis, wants to know why his exposure to the chemical called DEHP was more than 30 times higher than the typical American. Katie Mae Simpson, a mom from Portland, wonders why the levels of phthalates in her body are twice as high as her husband Zach Bouchard, even though the couple routinely avoids PVC plastic and personal care products that contain synthetic fragrances.
Maine people are polluted with chemicals called phthalates, according to a new report released today by the Alliance for a Clean and Healthy Maine. The report, titled “Hormones Disrupted: Toxic Phthalates in Maine People”, captures the stories and reactions of 25 Mainers who provided urine samples to test for the presence of seven different phthalates (pronounced THAL-ates), a group of hormone-disrupting chemicals that are widely used in consumer products.
“No child should be exposed to chemicals that cause learning disabilities, reproductive problems, obesity, and asthma,” stated Emma Halas-O’Connor, Coordinator for the Alliance for a Clean and Healthy Maine. “These 25 Maine people come from different places, have different jobs, and are different ages. But there is one thing they all have in common: phthalates are in their bodies. This report offers more than testing results; it captures the human story behind this pervasive and dangerous chemical.”
Results showed that every one of the 25 men and women who voluntarily participated had detectable levels of phthalates in their bodies. All were exposed to at least five of the seven phthalates tested and some were exposed at much higher levels than other Americans. Eight Maine people were in the top 5% of phthalate exposure nationally, and another four were in the top 10%. At a roundtable forum held this afternoon at the State House, reactions among participants included surprise, shock, anger, and frustration.
“What I learned from this study made my jaw drop,” said Paige Holmes, a theater fundraiser and mother of two from Lisbon. “Despite everything I’ve done to proactively protect my boys from harmful chemicals, I have the highest level of phthalates of anyone in the group. It seems criminal to me that consumers cannot see what is inside products so we can make rational decisions about our health and the health of our children.”
In addition to the individual testing results, the “Hormones Disrupted” report includes a summary of the medical science on phthalates, the sources of phthalate exposure in homes, and the history of governmental and business policies to address the dangers of phthalates and other hormone-disrupting chemicals.
The report concludes that “Mainers are widely exposed to phthalates, which cause serious health problems and are difficult to avoid due to lack of public information” and that “our chemical safety system fails to protect pregnant women and children.” The report recommends that “the State of Maine should act now to close the information gap” and “the use of phthalates should be phased out in favor of safer alternatives.”
Dozens of human health studies link phthalate exposure to serious health effects, including abnormal development of male sex organs; harm to the brain, causing learning and behavior problems in children; and increased rates of 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. Pregnant women and children are more vulnerable to the adverse effects of phthalates and also face higher exposures, but teens and adults are also at risk.
“A subtle but profound health tragedy is unfolding due to the widespread use of hormone-disrupting phthalates,” stated Bettie Kettell, a grandmother and retired nurse from Durham. “Strong science shows that early phthalate exposure can strip away a child’s chance to grow up healthy. A growing number of studies are reaching the same conclusion: phthalates are toxic to multiple organ systems. We all have a duty to protect children and future generations from these chemicals.”
Phthalates were first developed in the 1920s, and have been produced in large quantities since the 1950s, when PVC plastic was first commercialized. Phthalates are used to soften vinyl plastic and are routinely added to hundreds of everyday products and building materials found in the home, including lunch boxes, kids’ backpacks, school supplies, rain coats and boots, shower curtains, tablecloths, floor tiles and wall covering. They are also a common ingredient of “fragrance” found in many cosmetics, lotions and other personal care products. Phthalates readily escape from products and enter the human body through breathing, eating and skin contact, including from frequent hand-to-mouth activity and teething by toddlers.
“I never could know what caused me and many of my friends to develop cancer,” said Meredith Strang Burgess, a former Republican legislator from Cumberland. “But it is just common sense to focus on preventing expensive chronic illnesses rather than treating them after the fact. For me these results emphasize the need for more transparency and information so we can avoid needless exposure to toxic substances.”
Participants in the project live in diverse areas of the state and include nurses, educators, scientists, a college student, an electrician, as well as a handful of current and former legislators. Fifteen participants are either pregnant or have young children, representing two groups most vulnerable to phthalates exposure. Speakers at the roundtable called for immediate action from businesses and policymakers that would help parents and pregnant women find out which products contain toxic phthalates.
“These findings are frustrating and scary,” stated Megan Rice, a mother of two young daughters from Belgrade. “I am extremely careful about the products I buy – no plastic toys or food containers and no toxic cleaners. But I have a higher total level of phthalates in my body than most Americans. If it were possible to completely avoid phthalates by shopping differently, then my results should be low or zero. Maine parents and pregnant women have a right to know which products contain toxic phthalates. Lawmakers need to step up and help us get this information.”
A petition is now being circulated that would initiate rule-making before the Maine Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) on the reporting of phthalates in consumer products. The rule would elevate four phthalates to “Priority Chemical” status under Maine’s Kid-Safe Products Act and require manufacturers to report on which of their products sold in Maine contains the priority phthalates. Supporters believe this public information would empower consumers to avoid dangerous products and create market incentives for safer alternatives.
“We need to stop playing a game of dice with real human beings,” said Nancy Cronin, mother of a 4-year old son and Director of the Maine Developmental Disabilities Council. “None of us have the information we need to reduce or avoid exposure. It’s time to prioritize action on phthalates and require manufacturers to report their use in the products we bring into our homes. Anything less would be irresponsible.”
All seven of the phthalates tested in Maine people have been prioritized by various state, federal, and European government agencies due to scientific concern about hazards and exposures. Six are named in a “Phthalates Action Plan” by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency; six are “Chemicals of High Concern to Children” in the State of Washington; five are banned in toys and childcare items by the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission; five are known to cause cancer and/or developmental toxicity by the State of California; and four are banned as “Substances of Very High Concern” by the European Chemicals Agency.
Maine lawmakers have a history of bipartisan support for policies designed to protect children from exposure to dangerous chemicals. Maine’s Kid-Safe Products Act was passed almost unanimously in 2008, and has since been supported and updated by wide margins. Four current legislators participated in the phthalate testing project: Representatives Gay Grant (D-Gardiner) and Don Marean (R-Hollis), and Senators Emily Cain (D-Orono) and Geoff Gratwick (D-Bangor). Two former lawmakers also joined the group: former Speaker of the House Hannah Pingree (D-North Haven) and former Republican Chair of the Health and Human Services Committee Meredith Strang Burgess (R-Cumberland).
The “Hormones Disrupted” report recommends a two-step action plan for phthalates that involves businesses, policymakers, and consumers.
“This report offers a sensible path forward,” added Halas-O’Connor. “First, state policymakers should act immediately to close the information gap by designating phthalates as Priority Chemicals under the Kid-Safe Products Act and requiring manufacturers to publicly report which of their products contain specific phthalates. Second, the use of phthalates should be phased out in favor of safer alternatives. Consumers should demand phthalate-free products; business leaders should meet consumer demand for safer, affordable alternatives; and regulators should take action to phase out the use of all phthalates.”
Participant contact information and a pdf version of the report are available upon request. The report and executive summary are posted online.