Five years ago, I was one of 13 Maine citizens who participated in a study of chemical pollutants in our bodies, “Body of Evidence.”

The study was conducted by the Alliance for a Clean and Healthy Maine, a coalition of Maine-based organizations committed to protecting human health from toxic chemical exposure.

I was surprised then that my body contained the most varieties of chemical contaminants, 41 of 71, including many of the fire retardants, called PBDEs. I’ve had a lot of occasions to think about the study since then. Eighteen months ago, I was diagnosed with two different forms of cancer — kidney and prostate — and I’ve been in a continuous medical cycle since.

I keep a list of the medical issues I’ve had to deal with, and the many doctors I’ve met. The doctors and nurses all are working hard to slow the spread of the diseases, and generally my care has been excellent. My kidney cancer appears cured, by surgery, and I am in a promising experimental drug trial to deal with the prostate cancer.

Generally, though, the doctors don’t want to talk about the root causes of the diseases. I’ve eaten a healthy diet for decades, worked outdoors on my farm and kept in reasonably good shape.

So what it is that triggered cancer in me, and not in the next person? And why is one of every three people now alive likely to be diagnosed with cancer?

While this is a complex issue that makes it easier to focus on cures than prevention, our willingness to confront these root causes is going to be the difference between life and death or debilitating disease for our children and grandchildren. For their benefit, we’d better get busy.

Over the past five years, Maine has taken some important steps forward. We’ve eliminated many of the worst fire retardants from use. We’ve gotten bisphenol-A — BPA– out of baby bottles. We’ve created innovative, yet simple, systems to get toxic chemicals out of our town landfills. And Maine lawmakers passed the common-sense Kid-Safe Products Act virtually unanimously.

This is not a Maine problem, however; it is a national, and international, problem. What is in the air in one place is in the air everywhere. What is in the water in one place moves about the planet. What is in our food affects our health.

We can’t solve this problem state-by-state or chemical-by-chemical. We need to overhaul our federal chemical safety system, which is by all accounts, badly broken.

The Safe Chemicals Act of 2011 is being considered by the Committee on Environment and Public Works in the U.S. Senate. This bill would overhaul the deeply flawed Toxic Substances Control Act, which is both outdated and ineffective at protecting public health and giving businesses and consumers accurate information about chemicals used in everyday products.

Of the 80,000 chemicals currently in use, only 200 have been fully tested for health and safety in the 35 years since the Toxic Substances Control Act was enacted. Of those, only five have been restricted, despite widespread evidence of harm from many more chemicals. One need look no farther than asbestos and the deadly toll it continues to take on thousands of Americans every year to see the complete failure of the Toxic Substances Control Act.

The Safe Chemicals Act offers a practical, science-based approach to fixing this problem. It will require chemical companies to produce health and safety data; increase public information about chemicals and their health impacts; ensure the best available science guides decision-making; and support businesses that are innovating and developing safer chemicals. The last requirement is great news for Maine’s many creative entrepreneurs.

Sen. Olympia Snowe and Sen. Susan Collins could show their leadership by co-sponsoring the Safe Chemicals Act and helping their colleagues on the Committee on Environment and Public Works forge a bipartisan solution that protects children’s health and brings clarity and safety to the market and workplace.

The Safe Chemicals Act won’t cure my cancer, but it could make all the difference in the lives of my children and their children. The same is true for all of us. The truth is we all pay the price for unnecessary toxic chemicals in our everyday products — some with our health and all with our pocketbooks. It’s time for Snowe and Collins to step up and be leaders, for the future of our children and our economy.

Russell Libby is executive director of the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association. He lives in Mount Vernon.

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