Maine firefighters widows’ mission: Ban cancer-causing chemicals

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YARMOUTH — Therese Flaherty and Linda Baker have only met once, but they talk like old friends.

“When I first met Therese, I thought ‘there’s someone else like me out there,'” Baker said in a Nov. 27 interview.

The two were brought together in Augusta last spring to lobby for a first-in-the-nation law banning toxic flame retardants in household furniture. Both are widows and both have dedicated their lives to reducing the number of people who suffer from the pain they, their husbands, and families have endured.

On Friday, Dec. 1, Flaherty and Baker will each be presented a Grassroots Leadership Award for their advocacy efforts from the Environmental Health Strategy Center at the center’s 2017 Celebration for Our Healthy Future in Portland.

Baker, of Topsham, is a former Republican state senator and public school teacher. She met her husband, Skip – a career firefighter and former Topsham fire chief – when she was 11 and he was 12.

On Dec. 4, 2001, the day before the couple’s wedding anniversary, Skip died at age 54 from what is now considered the leading cause of line-of-duty deaths among professional firefighters: cancer.

“I miss him every day,” Baker said. “But I feel very lucky because we had more love in 24 hours than some people do in a lifetime.”

With two sons now in the fire service, Baker spent three years lobbying bipartisan support for LD 182.

“It’s very personal for me,” she said.

According to the Legislature, the bill prohibits new upholstered furniture containing more than 0.1 percent of a flame-retardant chemical or containing more than 0.1 percent of a mixture that includes flame-retardant chemicals.

Nika Beauchamp, the center’s digital communications manager, said as the retardants burn, they expose firefighters to carcinogens through breathing and skin absorption.

“That smoke firefighters breathe in is so toxic because of those chemicals,” Baker said. “We need to put a stop to it, it’s not necessary.”

Lawmakers on Aug. 2 overrode Gov. Paul LePage’s veto of the bill.

“It was a long battle,” Baker said. “But it was well worth it.”

As of Jan. 1, 2019, furniture can no longer be sold in Maine if it contains flame retardant chemicals.

“That was the best phone call I’ve ever gotten,” Baker said, recalling when she received word that the bill had passed. Flaherty also remembers crying when she got the call.

Flaherty lost her husband of 42 years – Tim, a Portland firefighter – to cancer six years ago. She spent her 48th wedding anniversary at the Statehouse urging legislators to support the bill.

Both Baker and Flaherty said they were aware their husbands’ lives were at stake every time they left for work.

“That’s why, no matter what, you’d say ‘I love you’ every time they were walking out that door,” Flaherty said. “Not in a million years did I ever think cancer would be the way Tim’s job took him.”

“The very thing (our husbands) lived for, saving people’s lives, is the thing that killed them,” Baker added.

Flaherty has also campaigned on behalf of firefighters who have died of cancer, to have them recognized as line-of-duty deaths.

In September, she traveled to Colorado Springs with her family to see Tim’s name among 196 firefighters who have died in the line of duty this year on the International Association of Fire Fighter’s Fallen Fire Fighter Memorial.

“Seeing all of the young, widowed wives with little kids in Colorado Springs was really heart-wrenching to me,” Flaherty said. “I’ll do whatever I can to help prevent one more name from going on that wall.”

Baker said she hopes that other states follow Maine’s example and adopt a bill similar to LD 182.

“It has to start somewhere,” Baker said. “But there needs to be a huge national push … the federal government needs to do something, but until they do, the individual states need to listen.”

Jocelyn Van Saun can be reached at 781-3661, ext. 183 or Follow her on Twitter @JocelynVanSaun.

Therese Flaherty, left, of Yarmouth, and Linda Baker of Topsham will be honored Dec. 1 for their successful advocacy on behalf of firefighters’ families for a ban on toxic flame retardants.