Environmental and health groups say the presence of dozens of industrial chemicals in 13 Mainers who volunteered for a study underscores the need for new policies to protect the public from potential toxins found in everyday consumer products.
In an analysis being released today, the Alliance for a Clean and Healthy Maine detected, on average, 36 chemicals in samples collected from a diverse group of Maine residents.
While some of the substances, such as mercury and arsenic, are well-known toxins, others are complex industrial chemicals that pose unclear health risks, the authors said. The report calls on policymakers to err on the side of caution and to increase the amount of research required before a chemical is used in products.
“We can’t keep tackling these problems one at a time,” said Michael Belliveau, executive director of the Environmental Health Strategy Center of Portland and a co-author of the report. “This study shows our safety system for industrial chemicals is badly broken.”
Representatives for the chemical industry as well as an environmental health nonprofit defended existing chemical safety programs, however, and said many chemicals have not been shown to pose health risks at low levels.
The Alliance for a Clean and Healthy Maine, which is a coalition of environmental and health organizations, enlisted 13 volunteers from around the state to submit blood, urine and hair samples for testing at independent laboratories.
The samples were tested for the presence of more than 70 chemicals, including common flame retardants such as deca, substances used as water-repellant clothing and in nonstick cookware, and chemicals found in many plastics. The labs also tested for lead, mercury and arsenic.
The test subjects ranged from a sporting camp owner in the North Woods to teachers, high school students and state politicians.
Forty-six of the 71 chemicals were detected.
Rep. Hannah Pingree, a North Haven resident who serves as House majority leader in the Legislature, had among the highest levels of phthalates, a common chemical used in vinyl, adhesives and some scented cosmetic products.
The report’s authors describe phthalates as “hormone-disrupting chemicals that threaten reproductive health.”
Bangor resident Denyse Wilson had among the highest levels in the group of arsenic, which she speculates might be from eating vegetables from her family’s garden. The raised garden was made using older, rot-resistant lumber treated with arsenic.
Like all of the test volunteers, Wilson had detectable levels of dozens of other chemicals. The mother of two said she and her husband pay close attention to labels and shop often at a natural foods store. But she learned from the study that some products she once considered “green” contain potential toxins.
“It’s shocking to me that readily available products contain harmful chemicals,” Wilson said.
Eric Stirling, the 32-year-old owner of a sporting camp on First West Branch Pond east of Moosehead Lake, was shocked to learn that he had the highest levels of mercury among the study group.
Stirling estimates he has lived three-quarters of his life at his family’s camp, which he describes as “out in the middle of nowhere.” The consulting physician in the study determined that the likely culprit was brook trout, which, consistent with Maine sporting camp tradition, is a food staple at the camp.
As a result, Stirling cut down his trout consumption from five or six fish a week to two. His 34-year-old wife has eliminated trout entirely. And the couple likely will preclude their future children from eating trout because of the threat mercury poses to a child’s brain and neurological development.
Most of the other chemicals detected in others were also present in Stirling, although at lower levels.
“The biggest lesson I have received is you just can’t get away from the stuff,” Stirling said. “It’s just so pervasive in the environment now.”
The report’s authors recommend increased research on chemical safety, requiring manufacturers to provide health and safety information on chemicals, and letting the public know what chemicals are in products. They also advocate that any chemicals be proved safe, especially for children, before use.
“We don’t need to be scared and terrified about what is on our shelves. We just want products to be safe,” said Amanda Sears, chairwoman of the alliance and associate director of the Environmental Health Strategy Center.
Not surprisingly, not everyone agrees with the study.
Tiffany Harrington, a spokeswoman for the American Chemistry Council, said she had not seen the report yet and did not feel comfortable commenting on the specific claims.
But Harrington provided a statement that said the council, which represents the major chemical manufacturers, supports “science-based biomonitoring” of chemicals to assess risk. The statement also quoted documents from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention cautioning that the mere detection of a chemical does not necessarily indicate a health risk.
“While more research is being done, a strong safety net remains in place as chemicals are stringently governed by a network of regulatory safeguards involving more than a dozen federal and state agencies,” the statement read. “In addition, America’s chemical makers have taken voluntary steps to drastically reduce the amount of chemicals emitted to the environment.”
John Heinze, executive director of the Environmental Health Research Foundation, also disagreed that new monitoring regulations are needed. The federal Environmental Protection Agency and the CDC conduct extensive research on the safety of chemicals.
While there is always room for improved communication, Heinze said he believes the research is out there. While the Environmental Health Research Foundation receives some of its money from the industry, Heinze said the group bases its advocacy on science, not industry positions.
“I think someone who says the information is not being provided is just not aware of the efforts,” Heinze said.
The other Mainers who volunteered to be tested are: Russell Libby, an organic farmer from Mount Vernon; Amy Graham, an author and homemaker from Farmington; Bettie Kettell, a nurse from Durham; Paulette Dingley, a health and safety instructor from Auburn; Sen. Dana Dow, a furniture store owner and Republican state senator from Waldoboro; mother-daughter pair Vi and Lauralee Raymond from Winthrop; Charlie Schmidt, a freelance writer from South Portland; Elise Roux, a high school senior from Portland; and Regina Creeley, a special education instructor from Hudson.
The groups involved in the Alliance for a Clean and Healthy Maine are: Environmental Health Strategy Center, Learning Disabilities Association of Maine, Maine Labor Group on Health, Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association, Maine People’s Alliance, Maine Public Health Association, Natural Resources Council of Maine, the Maine chapter of the Physicians for Social Responsibility, and Toxic Action Center Campaigns.