When the Maine Department of Environmental Protection last year proposed subjecting four chemicals to the rigors of the state’s Kid-Safe Products Act, environmental groups said it was little more than a toothless action meant to assuage critics of the LePage administration. Following the DEP’s actions last week, those groups have been proven right.
With the withdrawal of a proposal to list formaldehyde as one of the act’s priority chemicals, Gov. Paul LePage has again chosen chemical companies over the health of Mainers and their right to know what is in the products they buy.
The Kid-Safe Products Act was passed by the Legislature in 2008. Eventually, it identified hundreds of chemicals known or likely to be dangerous to children. Out of that list, the state was to designate priority chemicals. Manufacturers of products that use priority chemicals are required to inform the state, which then can warn consumers and push manufacturers to find alternatives.
LePage has been a longtime critic of the law, and has worked to undermine it at every turn. In 2011, the governor sought to overturn the law, famously joking that exposure to bisphenol-A, which the law’s backers wanted placed on the priority list, would at worst give women “little beards.” Last year, LePage vetoed a bill that would have added to the priority list 49 chemicals, including bisphenol-A, also known as BPA.
By the middle of 2013, the DEP had not proposed to add a single chemical to the priority list since LePage had become governor two and a half years earlier.
That changed in late 2013. Under pressure, the DEP proposed adding arsenic, cadmium, mercury and formaldehyde to the priority list.
The first three chemicals, which were approved for the list last week, however, have mostly been banned from consumer products already.
The same is not true for formaldehyde. Billions of pounds of the chemical are made in the U.S. each year. It is a popular binding agent, and it is used in crib sheets and cloth bibs, and as a preservative in children’s shampoo and other personal care products.
Prolonged exposure to formaldehyde has been linked strongly to cancer. A study released in 2009 by the National Cancer Institute found a significant increase in leukemia among 25,000 workers exposed to formaldehyde over 30 years.
The picture is not as clear when the chemical is present in small doses for short time periods, as is the case with children’s products. There’s evidence formaldehyde is not a cancer risk at that level, but it is certainly an irritant that can trigger allergic reactions and respiratory problems.
Any further risk has not been identified. That is the purpose of the federal assessment that is now underway, the same assessment the DEP cited as its reason for pulling formaldehyde from the proposal.
When that assessment will be ready, though, is anybody’s guess. Started in 1997, the assessment, by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, has been delayed again and again at the behest of chemical industry interests. First scheduled for completion in 2004, it was put off at that time until the release of the 2009 NCI study. Five years later, there is still no final report.
Any delay is a victory for the chemical industry, and a loss for people who want to know what harm chemicals are causing, and what chemicals are in the products they buy.
Maine should be a voice of conscience, and for transparency, in this fight. But by offering such a poor slate of chemicals for the priority list, then removing the only one of any consequence, the state has showed just what side it is on.