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Maine women take concerns about chemicals to D.C.

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Maine women take concerns about chemicals to D.C.

PORTLAND — Concern over chemicals in products and foods prompted about two dozen Maine women to get on a bus recently and take their cause to Washington, D.C.

The bus left Maine the morning of May 21, collecting other women along the way in other New England states to join a "Safe Chemicals Brigade" on the lawn of the U.S. Capitol the next morning. They rallied to support the Safe Chemicals Act, which the U.S. Senate is considering.

"We were the biggest of any state," said Helen Anderson of Portland, an environmental advocate and grandmother who joined the group of mothers, educators and health-care workers. "Of all the 31 states (that participated), Maine was by far the biggest."

The group lobbied Maine's Congressional delegation and brought 2,500 messages of support, as well as a resolution by state Legislature urging action from Congress.

Lalla Carothers of Cumberland, one of the bus-going activists, serves on the board of the Environmental Health Strategy Center. That nonprofit organization, formed to try to block toxic chemicals from everyday products, is one of 50 organizations brought together by the Alliance for a Clean and Healthy Maine. The alliance, which sponsored the trip to Washington, tries to find safer alternatives to dangerous chemicals.

"Chemicals have a purpose," Carothers acknowledged last week. "We're not asking anybody to ban all chemicals. I think it's to prove that they're safe before they go into a consumer market, and particularly things for children, and things for the vulnerable."

Carothers, who has also served on the Cumberland Congregational Church's "Green Team," called the trip inspiring. She said participants met with U.S. Sens. Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins, both R-Maine, as well as staff of U.S. Reps. Michael Michaud and Chellie Pingree, both D-Maine.

Carothers said she told them how some girls use lotions and nail polish containing chemicals that disrupt hormones, while another woman talked about her autistic son, and how she was exposed to toxic chemicals during pregnancy.

"Dangerous chemicals abound, from flame retardant in nursing pillows to BPA (bishphenol A) in epoxy sealants meant to protect our kids' teeth," she said after her trip. "We can't shop our way out of this. We must shift the burden or proof from assuming a chemical is safe until proven harmful to requiring evidence a chemical is safe before selling it to consumers."

According to the website of U.S. Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., who introduced the Safe Chemicals Act of 2011, the legislation is meant to reform the Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976, which the site calls "an antiquated law that in its current form leaves the health of families and the environment at risk."

Carothers said "both of our senators and our representatives acknowledged that this is a broken law, that (the act) is not working. ... It doesn't have much weight. For example, asbestos, under (the act), you can't ban it."

Anderson, who volunteers with the Environmental Health Strategy Center, said only about 200 of 84,000 synthetic chemicals found in products people use daily have ever undergone safety tests by the EPA.

"Right now, they don't test chemicals," she said last week. "It's considered harmless, (and) you can put it on the market until proven otherwise. In other words, people start getting sick."

Anderson said after her trip that "passing the Safe Chemicals Act would ensure that many more chemicals are tested. It would help prevent asthma, cancer, birth defects and neurological disorders, and even help protect wildlife from contaminated lakes and streams."

She added that untested chemicals lurk "in things that we wear, touch, eat, breathe, and drink. They are in packaging. We cannot get away from them. This issue affects us all."

Carothers, whose parents succumbed to cancer in her 20s and early 30s, said "I wondered about why they got cancer ... so that's a big motivation for me, to kind of understand what can we do to keep us all healthier. ... When I got pregnant, (I wondered) 'what am I eating, how is it going to affect this growing baby?'"

Lautenberg's site says the act would provide the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency with sufficient information to judge the safety of a chemical. Manufacturers would have to create and submit a "minimum data set" for every chemical they provide.

The act would also prioritize chemicals according to risk; require quick action to address those chemicals causing the highest risk; ensure that all chemicals on the market meet a safety threshold; allow for open access to reliable information on chemicals, and promote the development and innovation of safe chemical alternatives.

Tracy Gregoire of Topsham, another of the bus-riding group, coordinates the Maine Healthy Children's Project, which was formed in 2003 to address the links between learning disabilities and toxic chemicals in the environment.

"We focus on educating families about toxic chemicals in products, in the home and in the workplace," she said last week.

Gregoire called the trip "incredible," adding that "I would hop on a bus and do it all over again. ... It was an amazing group of women that were really engaged and passionate about this issue."

Alex Lear can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 113 or alear@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @learics.