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Maine Citizen-Led Effort Results in First-Ever Reporting of Toxic Phthalates

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Environmental Health Strategy Center
05.05.2016
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News Releases

Maine is at the center of a new national report on hormone-disrupting chemicals called phthalates.  What Stinks? Toxic Phthalates in Your Home, presents recently-disclosed information showing that hormone-disrupting chemicals are used in a broader range of household products than previously known.  Thanks to Maine activists, manufacturers of paints and cleaning products available across the country have been required to disclose their uses of dangerous chemicals called phthalates (pronounced THAL-ates) for the first time.  Many revealed that phthalates are an ingredient in the fragrances used in their products.

“This data provides new examples of products that are letting these hormone-assaulting chemicals infiltrate our bathrooms, kitchens, schools, and ultimately, our bodies,” said Mike Belliveau, executive director of the Maine-based Environmental Health Strategy Center and Prevent Harm. “To protect public health, manufacturers and retailers should move quickly to replace phthalates with safer substitutes.”

The new data is the result of a 2014 citizen-led petition effort in Maine.  More than 2,000 signatures were collected by parents, physicians, salon workers, and business owners and led to the Maine Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) naming four phthalates as Priority Chemicals.  This priority status requires chemical-use disclosure by manufacturers – information which now forms the basis for the new report. 

Fourteen manufacturers reported their use of four phthalates in 130 products.  Phthalates are mainly used as plasticizers, making vinyl plastic flexible. However the most common use reported to the Maine DEP came from manufacturers using phthalates as a fragrance ingredient.

“As a mother, I find myself getting angry and scared about harmful chemicals in consumer products lurking behind the word ‘fragrance’,” said Paige Holmes, a mother of two young boys in Bangor. “I am proud to have been part of this citizen-led effort in Maine that has changed the national conversation about these hormone-disrupting chemicals, but why aren’t manufacturers required to tell us what’s in everything they make? Why are phthalates still in use in this country? Trying to protect my family shouldn’t be this difficult.”

In addition to the first-time disclosures about toxic phthalates in specific paints and cleaners, manufacturers reported the use of phthalates in vinyl plastic used in clothing and shoes, as well as in fragrances in personal care products.  Reporting companies included 3M, which revealed phthalates in the fragrances of cleaners, disinfectants, and deodorizers, and Gap, Inc. which reported phthalates used to soften the plastic tips of shoelaces and drawstrings.

“Danger lurks behind the word ‘fragrance’,” said Emma Halas-O’Connor at Prevent Harm. “As an advocate for eliminating the uses of harmful chemicals in consumer products who is also a new homeowner, I am caught in a bind knowing that phthalates might be in many of the paints, cleaners, and other home maintenance products I’ve been using to fix up my house.”

Advocates thanked the Maine DEP for gathering the manufacturer reports in compliance with the law, and highlighted the importance of state disclosure policies like the one in Maine for providing information that would otherwise be kept secret from consumers and government.

The authors of the report note that the information collected represents just the “tip of the iceberg,” and that the use of phthalates in consumer products may be significantly under-reported. The State of Maine did not require reporting for all product categories.  And for some categories, such as clothing, accessories, and personal care products, manufacturers were exempt from reporting if their products were not intended for use by children ages 0 - 12, even though pregnant women are particularly vulnerable to adverse health effects from phthalates.  Based on the sheer number of consumer products on the market today, report authors also believe it is very likely that many manufacturers are illegally failing to disclose their use of phthalates.

“We’re grateful to the Maine DEP for finally providing us with additional information about phthalates in consumer products that would otherwise not be available,” said Tracy Gregoire of the Learning Disabilities Association of Maine. “However, we can and should do more to provide information that could prevent pregnant women and children from being exposed to chemicals linked to learning disabilities, reproductive harm, and asthma. And we need to fix the loophole that prevents the state from collecting information on phthalates and harmful chemicals in food packaging, which is a significant source of exposure. No parent wants to expose their child to chemicals that could cause any of these serious illnesses.” 

“Business owners do not want to put their customers, workers, or families at risk of exposure to dangerous chemicals like phthalates,” said Bettyann Sheats, owner of Finishing Touches Shower Doors in Auburn. “But the fact is, businesses have been as much in the dark as consumers.  Collecting information about which products contain phthalates is good for our businesses and the responsible thing to do.  This report is a step in the right direction, though likely just the tip of the iceberg in terms of reporting the use of phthalates in products we all use every day.”

Phthalates are tied to reproductive harm, learning disabilities, and asthma and allergies—even at low levels of exposure. Strong science linking phthalates to health hazards has led to restrictions throughout Europe, and several phthalates are prohibited in children's products in the United States.

“Well-documented science leaves no doubt that phthalates are linked to a number of health concerns,” stated Jeffrey Saffer, MD of Physicians for Social Responsibility Maine Chapter.  “We also know that phthalates readily escape from products and enter the human body through breathing, eating, and skin contact.  Toddlers are more highly exposed than adults because of their frequent hand to mouth activity.  This report shows why it is both reasonable and appropriate that we collect information about which products are the source of the exposure.”

Phthalates were reported as an ingredient in fragrance for more than half of the products. “Fragrance” can include dozens of chemicals, and there is no requirement that companies must disclose these ingredients publicly. In more than a third of the products, manufacturers reported using phthalates as a plastic softener in clothing, toys, and home maintenance products.

What Stinks? Toxic Phthalates in Your Home was authored by the Environmental Health Strategy Center and Prevent Harm, based on chemical-use disclosure in Maine for products sold across the country. It is cosponsored by Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families and Safer States, and endorsed by Breast Cancer Fund, Ecology Center, Healthy Babies Bright Futures, and Women’s Voices for the Earth.

"This new report can help retailers identify the types of products where phthalates are still hiding on store shelves,” said Mike Schade, Mind the Store campaign director for Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families. “Big retailers should use their purchasing power and influence to drive these unnecessary toxic chemicals out of fragrance and plastics.”

A growing number of states, including Maine, California, Oregon, Vermont and Washington, have passed laws that authorize mandatory disclosure of chemicals in products that may harm the health of babies and children. But reporting requirements still exempt many types of common household products.  Among the priority chemicals Maine requires for disclosure are four types of phthalates: diethylhexyl phthalate (DEHP), diethyl phthalate (DEP), benzyl butyl phthalate (BBP), and dibutyl phthalate (DBP).

"In the absence of any federal laws requiring ingredient disclosure for cleaning products and fragrance ingredients, this new data provides crucial information women can use to reduce their exposure to chemicals like phthalates that can cause reproductive harm," said Erin Switalski, executive director of Women's Voices for the Earth. "We urge the cleaning product companies that have reported using phthalates to commit to the elimination of this toxic chemical."  

“This report shows that our families are being exposed to dangerous ingredients that are hiding in the products we use every day,” said Janet Nudelman, Breast Cancer Fund Director of Program and Policy. “Consumers have an urgent right to full disclosure of all, and not just some, of the chemicals such as phthalates in their personal care and cleaning products so they can make safer, more informed purchases.”

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The full report can be found at: www.bit.ly/WhatStinks

Early in 2014, 25 Mainers had their bodies tested for the presence of seven different phthalates.  The results, published in “Hormones Disrupted: Toxic Phthalates in Maine People”, were shocking to many of the participants and ignited the citizen-initiated petition effort to find out more about which everyday products contain the dangerous chemicals. 

In May 2014, parents, doctors, and public health activists gathered and submitted the signatures of 2,071 Maine people to the DEP - more than 13 times the number needed to start the rule-making process. Petition signers came from 168 towns representing every county in Maine.  Signers included 125 legislators – Republicans, Democrats, and Independents.

The Alliance for a Clean and Healthy Maine is a coalition of over 50 public health, medical, parent, community, women’s, worker, environmental, and public interest organizations dedicated to protecting public health and the environment by replacing unnecessary dangerous chemicals with safer alternatives. www.cleanandhealthyme.org