LEWISTON — The products in front of Steve Taylor seemed innocent enough: a rubber duck, a few tin cans, a glass jar of baby food and plastic water bottles.
Each, however, contained chemicals that could be harmful to human health and are largely unregulated by the government, the program director for the Environmental Health Strategy Center told a crowd in a Central Maine Medical Center conference room Tuesday evening during a workshop on chemicals found in everyday life.
The event, sponsored by the Patrick Dempsey Center for Cancer Hope and Healing and the Environmental Health Strategy Center, focused on how to avoid toxic chemicals and raising awareness on the legislation that guides their use.
The federal Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976, the primary law to protect Americans from harmful chemicals used in commercial and construction products, “has never really worked,” Taylor said. Of the 80,000 to 100,000 synthetic chemicals registered for commercial purposes, he said, a mere 200 have been fully tested for health and safety. Only five chemicals have been restricted, and 62,000 were grandfathered under that law, he said.
Some chemicals have proven health risks associated with habitual contact.
* Bisphenol-A, commonly known as BPA is used in water bottles and the resin that lines food cans and bottles. The chemical was vilified a half-decade ago for its links to breast and prostate cancer and heart disease, among others ailments.
* Triclosan, nearly unavoidable in antibacterial soaps, deodorants and toothpastes, can build up in the human body and disrupt thyroid and human hormone functions.
* Flame retardants such as polybrominated diphenylethers (PBDEs), found in mattresses, and pthalates, in cosmetics and hospital IV bags, can affect reproductive systems.
But they continue to be used in consumer products.
“All of us have heard a story about a product recall, so we all assume that someone up there is looking out for us,” Taylor said. “That's not the case.”
For now, the task of avoiding toxic chemicals is largely the job of the consumer.
“In some ways, I feel really powerless” given the lax federal guidelines on chemicals, said panelist Melissa Fiori, a mother of three whose past experiences with cancer-stricken relatives led her to search for safer products to use in her home.
“But as a consumer, I feel really powerful,” she said, noting that consumer demand has caused some companies to change their manufacturing practices, including the makers of reusable water bottles that used to contain BPA.
“I think it's hard to shield ourselves from all the chemicals in the modern world,” Fiori said. “There are so many products to avoid, it's overwhelming.”
She offered tips, starting with learning more about the products consumers purchase. “If you can't read, or understand the ingredients, they're probably not good for you,” she said.
She suggested avoiding store receipts, which contain BPA, and avoiding plastics whenever possible. She uses glass jars to drink out of and store food at home, sends her children to school with their lunches wrapped in paper sandwich bags, and uses baking soda, lemon juice and white vinegar instead of commercial cleaning products.
The panelists advocated citizen involvement in initiatives to take a harder look at chemicals and their use. Change is most likely to come from the bottom up, Taylor said, noting that state legislation such as Maine's Kid-Safe Products Act, passed in 2008, have been more successful at protecting the public from toxins than federal guidelines.
“We as consumers have to speak up and say, 'We don't want this,'” said panelist Bettie Kettell, an operating room nurse at Mid Coast Hospital in Brunswick who advocates for safer public health facilities. “A big piece is education.”