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We can all read the signs

Sarah Standiford

In the community where I grew up in Baltimore MD, the fashion was to have ever-green lawns. Which of course required regular visits by companies with names like “ChemLawn” whose job it was to spray fertilizer and herbicides to keep those lawns looking perfect. The neighborhood was littered with little yellow flags warning kids and pets off those nice looking recently sprayed lawns. My friends and I coined the extremely clever campaign “Birds Can’t Read” after I read about some of the harm chemicals like 2, 4-D and Diazinon could do to children, birds and animals. My first real canvassing experience found me going door to door talking to my neighbors about the science behind these chemicals. I think they listened because it was quaint to see a young teenager trying to pronounce terms far beyond my ability. After several years of working neighbor-by-neighbor to replace those “keep off” signs with hand stenciled blue “Pesticide Free Lawn” signs, I left my adolescent environmental campaign behind and moved to Maine to go to college.

Fast forward 20 years and the impact of pervasive toxic chemicals is front and center. Americans rightly want to know that they can be safe from harmful chemicals where they live, work and play. Increasingly, women want to know how unnecessary toxic chemicals in consumer products could be affecting their health – especially during critical periods  in a woman’s development such as adolescence, pregnancy, and menopause.  We are learning that chemicals such as Bisphenol A, are not only tied to harmful health effects in adults but can endanger a developing fetus and a growing child.

For nearly two decades I’ve been fortunate to work as an advocate for public policies to improve the lives of women and girls. But things come full circle. It has been through my work for reproductive freedom that I’ve learned again about some of the chemicals that are pervasive in our environment, in consumer products on lawns and in our homes can have particular harm for women and their reproductive futures.  Some of the worst of the worst toxic chemicals, such as BPA, are linked not only to reproductive health impacts such as breast cancer, they can also impair our fertility and imperil a pregnancy and fetal development.

In my work today, I advocate for women’s ability to determine when and whether to bear children and raise a family. – an intensely personal and often very complex decision. Full reproductive freedom requires that we address the chemicals that impair our fertility and prevent healthy pregnancies. Thanks to ten years of advocacy by the Environmental Health Strategy Center, these connections are clear, in the interest of the public health, a safe environment, and our families and reproductive futures. We can all read the signs.

Sarah Standiford is currently the Regional Field Manager for Planned Parenthood Federation of America.   From 2003 through 2011, Sarah was the Executive Director for the Maine Women’s Lobby, which plays a leadership role in the Alliance for a Clean and Healthy Maine.

avatar Mike Belliveau, Executive Director

When will Dow Chemical get off the toxic couch?

Mike Belliveau, Executive Director for the Environmental Health Strategy Center and Senior Strategist at Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families

When Herbert H. Dow tapped the bromine salt deposits beneath Midland, Michigan, he launched a major chemical company and the chemistry that, more than a century later, still haunts our homes and bodies with toxic flame retardants.

Scientists shed new light on this growing chemical threat just last week, with two research teams reporting results in the prestigious peer-reviewed journal Environmental Science & Technology.

One study found that 85% of couches sampled have high levels of brominated and chlorinated flame retardants known to cause cancer, hormone disruption or reproductive harm. Some are long-lived in the environment, building up to high levels in wildlife and people.

Jenny Rottmann, a pregnant study participant who provided a foam sample from her couch cushion, responded this way: “It’s something that I’d be concerned about no matter what, but finding this out a couple days before I’m about to deliver a baby really is infuriating to me.”

The other study revealed that people are exposed to flame retardants in their homes everyday, often at levels that exceed federal health guidelines. Researchers found 44 flame retardant chemicals in household dust, which people breathe and ingest, especially small children with their frequent hand-to-mouth contact.

The chemical industry has aggressively covered up the dangers and exaggerated the effectiveness of toxic flame retardants in slowing the spread of household fires. Three small chemical companies have drawn the most heat. According to the Chicago Tribune, Albemarle, Chemtura, and ICL used misleading testimony, phony front groups and distorted science to expand and protect their chemical markets.

Little noticed so far has been the role that heavyweight chemical corporations such as Dow Chemical play in propping up the toxic flame retardant industry. Dow places a heavy thumb on the toxic scale in two ways.

First, they sit at the base of the supply chain, producing the chemicals needed to make a broad class of chlorinated flame retardants. Dow Chemical is the world’s largest producer of chlorine and epichlorohydrin, and also makes phosphorus oxychloride. These three chemicals are essential raw materials for the production of chlorinated tris (also known as TDCPP) and related chlorinated flame retardants.

In the recent science studies, TDCPP was found in 42% of all couches, more often than any other flame retardant chemical, and in 100% of household dust samples. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency considers TDCPP a hazard for “cancer, reproductive harm, developmental toxicity, systemic toxicity, and genotoxicty in humans; and ecotoxicity and environmental persistence.” Last year, California concluded that TDCPP was known to cause cancer.

That’s why Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families asked Dow Chemical today to show its commitment to truly sustainable chemistry by agreeing not to sell its chemical raw materials for use in the manufacture of chlorinated tris. As the SCHF letter said:

… from your powerful position at the base of the supply chain, you would send an important signal to the marketplace that fire safety goals should be met with safer alternatives to the use of TDCPP.”

Hopefully, Dow Chemical will respond more quickly and positively to this leadership opportunity than they have on a second, more systemic front.

The major chemical companies, including Dow Chemical, have perpetuated our broken federal chemical safety system for thirty-six years running. The obsolete Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976 (TSCA) keeps the public in the dark about chemical hazards and handcuffs the federal government from restricting known chemical dangers.

Last year, Dow Chemical management broke off negotiations that were heading toward a compromise TSCA reform agreement. The company has maintained steadfast opposition to the Safe Chemicals Act, despite widespread public and political support for tighter regulation of toxic chemicals in everyday products.

Dow Chemical, which spouts “solutionism” and “sustainability” as marketing mantra, has been trying hard to shake off the toxic legacy of Agent Orange and dioxin. And despite their positive spin, Dow remains wedded to chlorine chemistry (some call it ‘Pandora’s Poison’), which it uses to make more than one-quarter of more than 5,000 Dow products.

No one expects Dow Chemical to transform itself into a green chemistry company anytime soon. Dow’s current goal remains extremely modest – at least 10% of their sales will consist of products highly advantaged by sustainable chemistry, broadly defined, by 2015.

Yet, Dow does have a chance to be a real leader on the path to more sustainable, inherently safer chemistry. It’s time for Dow Chemical to get off the toxic couch by actively opposing the home invasion by chlorinated tris, and supporting the Safe Chemicals Act.

Take action NOW!

avatar Jesse Graham

Do It for the Kids

Jesse Graham and his son Alden

Jesse Graham and his daughter Alden

As my family celebrates the November birthdays of my two kids, and they open gifts, and there is talk of “what do you want for Christmas?” I am reminded of the work of the Environmental Health Strategy Center. As a parent of young children, I am constantly left wondering: are the gifts they open free of toxic chemicals? Are the new toys and products they come in contact with safe?

Here in Maine, thanks to the leadership of EHSC and the Alliance for a Clean and Healthy Maine, we have passed policies to get arsenic, mercury and toxic flame retardants out of consumer products. We have also started a new system to identify the worst chemicals, find safe alternatives and force international corporations to start putting children’s health first. But there is so much more to be done and the federal government really needs to step into action.

Unlike the European Union, the U.S. doesn’t require businesses to minimize the risks posed by toxic chemicals. Despite the use of hundreds of toxic chemicals in the manufacturing of products that our children put in their mouths, play with, or wear, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Consumer Product Safety Commission have little authority and few resources to restrict even the most dangerous chemicals. Lead-contaminated toys from China are just the tip of the iceberg. The real problem is that there is virtually no government oversight of chemicals used to manufacture toys and children’s products—even those made in the United States!

The risks are real. Babies and young children are the most vulnerable to toxic chemicals since their brains and bodies are still developing and because they frequently put toys and hands into their mouths. We shouldn’t pretend that there is a safe level of exposure. Research shows that even low-level exposure to toxic chemicals can have lifelong impacts. Toxic chemicals have no place in children’s toys, period.

It is unfair that parents cannot trust that the toys they are purchasing this holiday season are safe. With all of the other concerns I have as a parent, I shouldn’t have to worry that my children are being poisoned by their toys. Even as a consumer who is aware of the problem, I can’t go down to a store and know which toys are hazardous and which aren’t. It’s impossible to tell by looking, and there’s no requirement for manufacturers to disclose what chemicals are in them.

To be fair, many retail stores are stuck in the middle too. The last thing a responsible business owner wants to do is sell products that harm children. But without any requirements that chemical companies test their chemicals for safety, or that toy manufacturers label the products they make, retailers have no way of knowing what chemicals are in toys either.

Policy changes and government action are needed to keep toxic chemicals out of products intended for our kids. It is time for the federal government to act to protect the health of our children. As parents, we shouldn’t have to worry that the toys we buy our kids will actually harm them.

The good news is that safe toys are possible and more are coming on the market all the time. But even so, we can’t shop our way out of this problem. Information sources like the healthytoys.org database are important and helpful tools, but real change will only come when all chemicals are tested for safety and the state and federal governments can act quickly to get dangerous chemicals off the market, so our kids aren’t put at risk every time they pick up their favorite toy. I’m proud to support EHSC’s work that’s making that vision a reality.

Jesse Graham is Executive Director of the Maine People’s Alliance and the Maine People’s Resource Center. He was a founding member of the Alliance for a Clean and Healthy Maine and has a degree in Environmental Studies. He lives in Bar Harbor with his wife Dory and their two kids, Porter and Alden.

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Here’s to the next 10 years of good science and good advocacy that benefits us all!

Karin Anderson

I grew up in California in a little known region known locally as the Gold Coast, not because of wealth but because of the chronically dry vegetation that results from a semi-arid climate and very little rain.  Thanks to the miracle of irrigation, even the valley where I lived with my family — the Santa Maria Valley — contributed to the state’s amazing agricultural output. Back then, we lived in the Broccoli Capital of the country; now, it vies with the Santa Ynez Valley to be the Pinot Noir Capital.

I was accustomed to eating strawberries year-round as a child; now I live in a place with a strawberry season of about three weeks.  But I also benefit now from an important difference that smaller scale, non-industrial agriculture allows: I do not ingest such vast quantities of pesticides with my locally-grown, organic produce.

In spite of California’s reputation as a cutting edge state in many ways, it continues to produce tons of pesticide-laden fruits and vegetables, as well as wine grapes.  I shudder when I think of the amount of toxic chemicalsthat course through my body because of my childhood consumption of so much local produce (I’ve yet to meet a fruit I didn’t love!).  I remember watching the crop dusters spray the fields without a second thought about what that poison might do to me.  Now, we know.

I support the Environmental Health Strategy Center because we have been kept ill-informed for far too long about the effects of agricultural, industrial, and household toxic chemicals on our health and the environment.  EHSC is on the cutting edge here, both in Maine and at the national level.  Here’s to the next 10 years of good science and good advocacy that benefits us all!

Karin Anderson is a member of EHSC and former Executive Director of the Maine Women’s Fund and current owner of Dala Consulting, which provides program and organizational development support to foundations and nonprofits to help achieve stronger mission impact. She is also a current board member of United Somali Women of Maine and the Portland Community Health Center.

avatar Steve

A safer world for our children

During high school, I spent almost all my free time with my best friend Tony. He died of cancer when we were twenty. My wife suffered for many years from chronic endometriosis and had to have a hysterectomy when she was thirty-one. My father in law, who sprayed pesticides around his home and yard for decades, has Parkinson’s disease. My three and a half year old son is showing signs of sensory processing issues. Were any or all of these health problems related to exposure to chemicals? We’ll never know for sure. What I do know for sure is that each of these people that I love was exposed to chemicals known to cause the health problems they suffered in their home, school, or workplace. And I know that I don’t want anyone else to have to wonder whether their best friend’s cancer, their wife’s hysterectomy, or their child’s autism was preventable. That’s why I love working at the Environmental Health Strategy Center.

I’ve had the privilege to work at EHSC for eight of our ten years of existence, and was connected to some of the organization’s campaigns even during its first two years. I can’t think of anything better that I could do for my family, my friends, and my community than fight for safe homes and schools free of toxic chemicals, for clean air and water that can sustain life, and for a strong and just economy that makes healthy products and shares benefits fairly with everyone.

Ten years ago, Maine had barely begun to tackle keeping just a handful of dangerous substance like lead and mercury out of our air, water and soil. Hardly any legislators, opinion leaders, or advocates had thought about the thousands of chemicals that are used in couches, car seats, shampoos, and the other everyday products that fill our homes and lives, about how little we know about their safety, or about what one state could do to protect health and promote safer chemicals. Early in the Center’s history a lot of people said “you can’t,” as in: “You can’t beat the chemical industry” or “You can’t ban chemicals.” But we have, through a mix of strong science, smart advocacy, compelling voices, and lots and lots of grassroots support.

Ten years later, thanks to leadership by EHSC and many partners, and action by thousands of supporters, Maine has adopted a slate of first-in-the-nation policies to get arsenic, mercury, and toxic flame retardants out of consumer products, and even passed a completely new system to identify the worst chemicals, find safer alternatives, and drive transitions. We’ve modeled how one state can act on its responsibility to protect its residents and use its authority to force national and international companies to put children’s health first. In the past ten years, we’ve beaten the chemical industry and their dirty tricks and hired “experts” again and again.

We all have losses in our lives, and we all have hopes. Our memories and our dreams can both motivate us to help fight injustice and build a better world. When my son wakes up happy every morning, or runs to give me a hug when I get home, I know that I would do anything to make sure he, and the children he may have one day, grow up healthy and safe. We work hard to teach him to tell the truth, be nice to others and clean up any messes he makes. That would be a great set of principles for the chemical industry to adopt.

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My Summer Fellowship at EHSC

Becky Mayer, one of three EHSC Summer Organizing Fellows

My name is Becky and I am one of three interns working with EHSC for the summer.  I just wanted to take a moment to introduce myself and describe a little bit about what we’re working on this summer.   I am a rising senior at Colby College studying International Relations and Environmental Studies.  Besides participating in the great work that EHSC is doing, I’ve been greatly enjoying the opportunity to explore the beautiful state which I usually only reside in during the colder months of the year!

This summer is especially exciting at EHSC because of the upcoming elections.  Because it’s election season, we’ve had the power to get candidates to really listen to our issues and potentially influence them to vote in favor of laws that promote safer chemicals in our everyday lives.  We’ve also had the really cool opportunity to be a part of the submission of over 800 signatures in support of banning BPA in toddler and baby food packaging to the Maine Department of Environmental Protection. EHSC’s campaign to ban BPA in food is really taking off this summer and it’s been so cool to be a part of this exciting moment in safe chemicals history.

Moms from Waterville submit over 800 petition signatures to the BEP in support of phasing out BPA from baby and toddler foods

Another awesome project that a fellow intern and I have been working on is producing a consumer tips guide to educate people about avoiding chemicals and making safer choices in their everyday lives.  So far, my summer with EHSC has been great.  I’ve loved getting out into the Maine community and speaking with a ton of people about what EHSC is about.  I really feel like I am making a difference and contributing to the amazing work that EHSC does for the people of Maine and beyond!

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Over the past ten years, I’ve seen that our family is not the only one…

Amy Graham

Holding my first born baby in my arms and looking into those dark eyes of hers, I fell in love. I knew with the sudden fierce certainty of a new mother that I’d do everything I could for her.

When, at six months old, our daughter developed hives and eczema, we switched laundry detergents and moisturizers for gentle, non-toxic formulas. Still, the skin behind her knees and inside her elbows itched, cracked and bled. She stopped growing well. Her doctor labeled her “failure to thrive” and we began a battery of tests to rule out various disorders. It was frightening for us as new parents. Something was clearly wrong, but we didn’t know how to protect her.

One morning her face became swollen with hives and she was wheezing so we took her in to see her pediatrician. “This is bad,” he said with fear in his eyes and sent us to the emergency room. Our daughter was soon diagnosed with food and environmental allergies and asthma.

Back when she was a baby and we were still trying to figure out what was wrong, there were days when she would refuse any food, preferring to nurse. At least, I thought, I know milk is wholesome and pure. Then I read a Swedish study that showed toxic flame retardants are stored in human fat tissue and passed from mother to child through breast milk. This opened my eyes to the fact that environmental pollutants are within our own bodies. This seems obvious now, but previously I’d thought of pollution as something that affected our air and water.

The mystery of why my daughter suffers from health issues became a bit clearer. Each of us walks around with a burden of toxic chemicals and heavy metals and we now know that these have effects on the developing minds and bodies of our young.

Over the past ten years, I’ve seen that our family is not the only one. Allergies, asthma, autism, ADHD are on the rise at alarming rates and have devastating effects on children, their families, and their communities.  That is why I am a member and a volunteer with the Environmental Health Strategy Center who has been working for 10 years to prevent harm by getting dangerous chemicals out of our everyday products.  Together we need to continue tackling chemical pollution in order to create a better world for our children.

avatar Melissa Fiori

Summer fun without toxic chemicals

Summer is one of my favorite seasons of the year! There are so many wonderful things to do with family and friends. Hiking, camping, boating, beaches, picnics and many other outdoor adventures.  All year we crave those delights of summer – lemonade, cold treats, and basking in the warm sun.

Another great beach day!

Summer also brings some real challenges for keeping our families safe from toxic chemical exposure – between sunscreen, bug spray, and even face paints that aren’t safe or healthy for kids, it’s helpful to do a little research on what’s in your products. I use www.skindeep.org to look up what products in the store are safe enough for my kids.

A day at Popham beach

There are also plenty of easy things you can do to avoid toxic products in the first place. Here are some easy tips:

  1. Avoiding sunburns: Instead of lathering with too much sunscreen, I keep my kids covered with lightweight shirts and hats at the beach. Bringing a beach umbrella or tent to have a break from the sun is helpful too.
  2. Taking it on the go: I try to avoid plastic, especially when it gets hot in the sun. Paper bags and glass containers work great for snacks and beverages, and I purchase lemonades that come in glass bottles. Plastics can leach chemicals like BPA and phthalates especially when they get hot – so I skip them altogether. Here are some rules I follow: No reusing plastic water bottles. No plastic containers, especially those that appear cloudy or cracked.
  3. Keeping things cold: I look for stainless steel popsicle containers and ice cube trays instead of plastic. When freezing delicious fruits, berries and produce I use glass canning jars with BPA-free lids. Ball mason jars have a variety of sizes and covers. I know I’ll enjoy summer harvest on those cold winter nights!
  4. Taking advantage of summer farmer’s markets: Finally, I buy local and organic fruits and vegetables.  It is a wonderful way to support local farmers, small businesses and decrease our carbon footprint while keeping our families healthy! Remember to bring your own cloth and paper bags when purchasing produce and avoid plastic bags and packaging.

Have fun and enjoy summer!

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Nurse Bettie Kettell reflects back on her journeys as an environmental health leader

Bettie Kettell RN

I first heard the term “chemical policy reform” at a nursing program many years ago. I learned that the State and Federal agencies and regulations that we think protect us from toxic chemicals in everyday products are seriously out of date and ineffective.  My personal struggles with asthma, allergies, and breast cancer has inspired me for the past decade to be a leader organizing my fellow nurses and working with the Environmental Health Strategy Center to advocate for safer chemicals in everyday products used at home and in hospitals.

In 2008, I was a lucky participant of Maine bio-monitoring project.  All thirteen participants were surprised by their results.  I found out I had the highest level of flame-retardants of the group tested.  It is very likely that I absorbed a high level of flame-retardants while working in a new hospital.  This strengthened my resolve to advocate for safer chemical laws.

In May of this year, I had the pleasure of participating in the Maine bus trip to the nation’s capitol and joining the Stroller Brigade on the Capitol lawn.  Following the rally we met personally with Senator Snowe and Senator Collins to share our stories and ask them to support the Safe Chemicals Act.  Our delegation consisted of 25 Mainers who ranged from college students to grandmothers who all advocated for change.

I do not want another person to get asthma, breast cancer, or develop allergies to products needed for their job.  Until we take a preventative approach and eliminate chemicals that cause disease there will be an increasing burden on the already overburdened healthcare system.  As an advocate for my children, my grandchildren and my patients, I plan to continue taking every opportunity I can to meet with my elected officials in support of public health issues.

Bettie D. Kettell has been an operating room nurse at Mid Coast Hospital for over 25 years and has been a leader with EHSC since our beginning 10 years ago.

avatar Katie Mae

Moms have enough to worry about already without BPA!

When I found out I was pregnant, I had a lot of questions:   How do I instill the right values into my child?  How do I avoid the harmful gender stereotypes that lend to body image and confidence issues, particularly in girls?  And, of course – will I ever sleep again?

One question that I didn’t spend time considering was “What will I feed my baby?”  It was never a consideration – my family eats local, organic food whenever possible, even growing and canning some of our own food. I certainly never thought I would have to worry about whether my baby’s food would contain a chemical known to contribute to breast cancer and early puberty in girls.

When BPA became a buzz-word a few years ago, we trashed all our plastic food-storage containers and replaced them with reusable glassware.  Given our back-to the earth mentality around food, I simply assumed that I’d feed my baby the ground-up version of what we were eating (when she wasn’t breasfeeding, which is a high priority for me).

Maple

Baby Maple

But that was back when I thought I could do it all. Of course I could make organic baby food, while also working a demanding job, doing all the other work associated with a baby (laundry anyone?) and being active in my community.  Turns out, the whole “separate meal from scratch several times a day” thing wasn’t going to fly.  The first time I tried to use the food mill…well, suffice it to say that my reaction isn’t fit to print.

That’s when I realized I would have to find a safe and healthy brand of baby food. Turns out, it’s not so easy.

After some research, it became clear that the only truly safe answer was baby food in glass jars. Luckily, there are a few great brands that come in glass jars and are really ONLY mushed up fruit and/or veggies. And they’re pretty tasty! (Except for the peas. Trust me).

Maple and mom

Maple and Mom

But the research wasn’t as simple as looking at baby food labels. It turns out even some organic baby food brands like Earth’s Best still contain BPA right in the jar lid. Sadly though, those BPA-free cases of baby food I finally  found at Whole Foods are now  gathering dust on the shelf.  I’m sure they work well for many other food-conscious families, but not for ours.  Maple is a fiercely independent kiddo, and whenever we try (and believe me, we have tried) to feed her, she clamps her mouth shut, and deftly avoids our repeated attempts to coax her into trying it.  So we’ve moved to feeding her what we’re eating, just broken into small bits.  That’s right – we’re back to feeding her local, organic food – just not the “baby food” version.  For us, that works.

All parents end up finding tricks for making sure our kids are fed nutritious food. But whether we end up feeding mashed up versions of what’s on our plate, or buying a store-bought brand, no parents should have to worry about exposing their kids to a toxic chemical.

Annie Colaluca asks the state to get BPA out of toddler foods

Moms submit over 800 signatures to the DEP asking to get BPA out of baby and toddler foods

Right now we have a chance to ban BPA from baby and toddler foods in Maine. I hope many new moms like myself will stand together behind this campaign , so we can stop worrying about BPA in our kids’ food,  and get back to worrying about the harder questions like “will we ever sleep again?”