AUGUSTA — Public health and environmental groups urged lawmakers on Wednesday to approve a bill that would allow state regulators to ban the use of two chemical classes – phthalates and PFAS – in food packaging in Maine.

But representatives for Maine’s paper mills and national packaging manufacturers cautioned legislators against enacting “overly broad” bans on a broad range of chemicals commonly used in products worldwide.

“Food packaging is the great new frontier for our mills,” said Patrick Strauch, executive director of the Maine Forest Products Council, a trade group that includes paper manufacturers. “We have great opportunities and many of our mills are moving into this area, so we need to be cautious about how we go about sending out messages about support for their efforts.”

Maine has already banned sale of children’s products containing bisphenol-A, or BPA, and requires manufacturers to disclose the use of certain phthalates in children’s products.

A bill pending in the Legislature would prohibit the use of all phthalates – a chemical commonly used to soften plastics and in some personal care products – in food packaging beginning in 2022. The proposal would also authorize the Maine Department of Environmental Protection to begin the process of prohibiting the type of chemicals known as PFAS in all food packaging in Maine.

Both chemical compounds are under increasing scrutiny nationwide for possible impacts on human health, particularly in children. And earlier this year, Gov. Janet Mills created a task force to examine contamination from PFAS – used in non-stick cookware, firefighting foam and grease-repellent packaging – throughout Maine.

“We have the opportunity to make a small step towards keeping more of these forever chemicals out of our environment by phasing out their use over time without putting an undue burden on food packagers and manufacturers,” said bill sponsor Rep. Jessica Fay, D-Raymond.

Four types of phthalates are already listed by the Maine DEP as “priority chemicals” that require manufacturers to notify the state when they are used in some children’s products. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says human effects from exposure to phthalates is “unknown” but points to studies showing some impacts on the reproductive system of lab animals.

The per- and polyfluoroalkyl chemicals collectively known as PFAS, meanwhile, have emerged as a health concern nationwide. A growing number of studies suggest PFAS – particularly two phased-out varieties, PFOA and PFOS – are linked to cancer, thyroid disruption and low birth weights as well as changes in the reproductive and immunological systems of lab animals.

Chemical and packaging manufacturers testified Wednesday that Fay’s proposed “blanket prohibition” on phthalates and PFAS ignores the fact that many varieties of the chemicals have been approved for use by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and European health officials.

Raymond David, a toxicologist who serves on a phthalates panel of the industry trade group the American Chemistry Council, said while four phthalates were identified as likely to harm the human reproductive system, none of the others have been flagged as potentially harmful. So, David said, it would be wrong to classify all phthalates as “chemicals of concern” because there are so many different varieties.

“There is no regulatory body in the world that has done that because the science simply doesn’t support that,” David told the committee.

Strauch, with the Maine Forest Products Council, said the papermaking industry is concerned about PFAS issues but, rather than regulatory mandates, his members would prefer the “collaborative, fact-finding” approach envisioned in the governor’s PFAS task force.

Bill supporters dismissed such statements, however, as predictable responses from chemical companies. Instead, they urged lawmakers to ban these long-lasting chemicals and continue leading the nation on regulation of potential toxics in consumer products.

“We are told by manufacturers that the substitutes are safer and we have nothing to worry about, but inevitably similar health and environmental concerns arise after we’ve already been exposed, so we end up back where we started from,” said Gail Carlson, an assistant professor of environmental studies at Colby College.

“The common-sense approach to protect public health is to ban food packaging that contains any of these chemicals, the old ones and the new substitutes from the same chemical families,” Carlson said.

The most emotional testimony of the day came from Fred Stone, an Arundel farmer who says his century-old business family business has been ruined by PFAS contamination.

Like many farmers in Maine and around the nation, Stone spread treated municipal sludge on his farm fields for decades as fertilizer. But in 2016, the Kennebunkport, Kennebunk and Wells Water District notified Stone of elevated PFAS levels in water from a district well on his farm.

Subsequent testing showed PFAS levels in soils that were 42 times higher than “action levels” set by the Maine DEP and levels in milk that were seven times higher than the state’s cut-off for dairy processors to accept milk. Stone eventually lost his contract with Oakhurst Dairy and estimates he is losing $450 a day, despite installing a state-of-the-art water filter and shipping in hay grown on farms in other states that did not receive sludge.

Last month, the Maine DEP ordered wastewater treatment plants across Maine to begin testing sludge for PFAS before it can be spread on farm fields or sold as compost. That testing is expected to begin next month.

The bill discussed Thursday would affect food packaging, not sludge spreading. But Stone urged lawmakers to take steps to regulate chemicals that can leach out of food packaging into landfills, soils and waters.

“These chemicals do not dissipate,” Stone said. “Our fields are just as contaminated today as they were when we spread the sludge on those fields” more than 12 years ago.

“I’m sure some in the chemical industry may stand up here with new formulas . . . and think they are safe,” Stone said. “But after being ruined by this thing, I’d be pretty damned reluctant to believe any chemical companies.”

Kevin Miller can be contacted at 791-6312 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: KevinMillerPPH

 

Augusta and Waterville news

Get news and events from your towns in your inbox every Friday.


  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.