Even In Maine, Chemicals Can Be An Issue

Produce stand, Lisbon, Maine, 7-14-06
AP (file)
Testing of 13 Mainers including a homemaker, a sporting camp guide, an organic farmer and two state lawmakers revealed a plethora of chemicals that are toxic or potentially dangerous, according to a survey.

Chemicals ranged from flame retardants used in consumer electronics to well-known threats like arsenic, mercury and lead, according to the Alliance for a Clean and Healthy Maine, which paid to screen the volunteers for 71 chemicals.

The Alliance for a Clean and Healthy Maine hopes to use the findings to elevate the discussion about chemicals in everyday products.

"It's a study to make the point that we have a problem here. These are regular people. These aren't people who live next door to a chemical plant," said Amanda Sears, alliance chairwoman and an author of the report.

Similar chemical screenings have been conducted elsewhere, but this represented the first such screening in Maine, Sears said.

The chemicals that found their way into people included phthalates, used to soften hard plastics; PDBE, a widely used flame retardant; and perfluorinated chemicals, used in protective and stain-free coatings.

Three of the chemicals - arsenic, lead and mercury - are known to be toxic to humans, but others, like phthalates, are unregulated. Thus, it's unclear what level might be considered safe.

Russell Libby, an organic farmer from Mount Vernon, and Bettie Kettell, who works at Mid Coast Hospital, tied for the most chemicals with 41 apiece.

"I am pretty careful about my lifestyle and what I do and yet I'm exposed at a fairly high level to a broad range of chemicals," said Libby, who is executive director of the Maine Organic Farmers Association.

According to the study, all 13 Mainers had measurable amounts of lead, mercury and arsenic in their bodies. Mercury can come from tainted fish, lead from exposure to dust from lead paint and arsenic from drinking water from wells.

They also had varying amounts of the other chemicals.

Environmentalists warn that there's no safe level of exposure for many chemicals, including several of those in the report.

"Chemical products stop human reproduction and (cause) asthma attacks at blood levels equivalent to one or two drops of medicine in an Olympic-sized swimming pool," said Richard Wiles, executive director of the Environmental Working Group.

The survey, funded by John Merck and the Beldon Fund, required the volunteers to donate blood, urine samples and a lock of hair. There would have been more test subjects but the tests are costly: roughly $39,000 for the entire group, Sears said.

Samples were analyzed by AXYS Analytical Service in Victoria, British Columbia, and Brooks Rand Labs in Seattle, officials said.