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AUGUSTA — Mothers, physicians and business owners were among those who called on the LePage administration Tuesday to monitor the use of potentially harmful chemicals called phthalates in children’s lunch boxes, toys, raincoats and other plastic products.
Dozens of advocates packed a public hearing to push the Department of Environmental Protection to add four types of phthalates (pronounced THAL’ates) to a high-priority list of chemicals regulated under Maine’s Kid-Safe Products Act, which would force manufacturers to disclose their use in children’s products sold in Maine.
“This is an issue that you can’t talk yourself out of because there’s no information about what products have the (chemical) and what products do not,” Paige Holmes, a mother of two boys from Lisbon, told the DEP. “It’s something that’s so pervasive in our products and we need to figure out how to get rid of it.”
About 50 proponents of listing the phthalates gathered outside DEP offices before the hearing. They chanted “people have a right to know” and displayed some of the products containing the chemicals, including a rubber duck, a shower curtain and beauty products.
Phthalates are used in plastic products such as vinyl records, lunch boxes, toys, packaging and flooring to make the plastic softer, flexible and durable. They can also be found in cosmetics, lotions and other body products.
Supporters said listing phthalates and requiring disclosure about their use would help prevent pregnant women and children from coming in contact with the chemical, which they say has been linked to birth defects in males, sperm damage, learning and behavior problems, asthma and allergies.
The DEP can require manufacturers to report the use of chemicals if it determines they pose a potential health threat, but agency officials have said the health effects of exposure to low levels of phthalates is unclear. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says exposure to the group of chemicals has affected the reproductive systems of laboratory animals, but that more studies are needed to understand the health effects in humans.
The use of some forms of phthalates have been restricted by the federal government, other states and the European Union based on increasing concerns about health effects. Congress has restricted the amount of some phthalates in children’s products, but there is no federal requirement that other uses be disclosed to states or consumers.
The Alliance for a Clean and Healthy Maine had submitted a petition with more than 2,000 signatures asking for the rule change. The DEP must hold a public hearing on issues raised by petitions with more than 150 signatures.
“Chemicals can wreak havoc with our children’s health,” said Tracy Gregoire, an advocate with the Learning Disabilities Association of Maine. “No parent wants to hear the words ‘birth defects,’ ‘asthma,’ ‘reproductive problems,’ ‘cancer’ or ‘learning disabilities,’ and no parent would purposefully expose our children to chemicals that cause serious health problems.
“We all have the right to know which products contain dangerous chemicals like phthalates,” Gregoire, who has an autistic son, told the DEP.
Deborah Rice, a former toxicologist for the state, said during the hearing that levels of phthalates are higher in children than adults, and that toddlers in particular are highly exposed. Rice said about 10 percent of women have elevated levels of the chemicals in their bodies.
“Maine parents, pregnant women and retailers are tired of waiting for this most basic information about where to find phthalates,” Gregoire said. “We know they are lurking in the products that we use every day, but we have all been left in the dark. There is simply no way to shop our way out of this problem.”
Maine’s Kid-Safe Products Act has led to the regulation of other chemicals, including a ban on the use of a different plastic additive – bisphenol A, or BPA – used in some rigid plastic products such as baby bottles and water bottles.
The state DEP already has placed seven phthalates on the list of chemicals of high concern and is evaluating their safety. The petition calls for the agency to elevate four of those phthalates to the list of priority chemicals, which would make them subject to disclosure requirements and possibly restrict their use.
No opponents of the petition effort spoke at the hearing Tuesday. The American Chemistry Council, a manufacturers group that has opposed Maine’s notification law, did not respond to interview requests.
The ACC website says that phthalates are cost effective and highly suitable for flexible vinyl products.
“Phthalates have been reviewed by numerous scientific panels and the conclusions have been essentially the same each time: that the phthalates used in commercial products do not pose a risk to human health at typical exposure levels,” the website reads.
The DEP will accept public comments on the proposal until Sept. 29. After that, the state will have 120 days to decide whether to make manufacturers disclose use of the phthalates.