Hannah Pingree

Winter 2007-2008
Rep. Hannah Pingree told the audience during her keynote speech at the Common Ground Country Fair that toxic compounds are common in all our bodies, but that we can take important steps to rid ourselves and our environment of these compounds.

Hannah Pingree, of North Haven, is the Majority Leader of the Maine House of Representatives. A second-generation MOFGA member (her mom, Chellie, organized MOFGA’s apprenticeship program), Pingree is a leader on issues dealing with toxic materials in the environment. She was the prime sponsor of this year’s successful legislation to phase out the brominated flame retardant “deca.” Pingree is one of 13 Maine citizens tested for toxic materials in their bodies by the Alliance for a Clean and Healthy Maine. In her keynote speech at the 2007 Common Ground Country Fair, she talked about the study and changes needed to get toxic chemicals out of the environment and out of our food system.

Preparing for this speech, I Googled the news items on “toxic chemicals.” A listing of recent headlines made me want to crawl back into bed:
Toxic Plastics Chemical in Infant Formula
How to protect your kids from thousands of toxic toys
Bush Rollback Will Hide Data on 600,000 Pounds of Toxic Chemicals
Bisphenol A: Toxic Plastics Chemical in Canned Food
Dangerous chemicals show up in the strangest places
Babies at risk from non-stick chemical
Toxic Chemicals Possibly Transported Through Your Backyard
Exposure to chemicals linked to ADHD, autism
Harmful Chemicals Leaking Out Of Your Household Items?

It is no wonder parents are paranoid. I used to think this stuff was a bit of an overreaction. My mom’s purchase of the natural washing detergent, shampoo and even chemical free toilet paper seemed over the top. In fact, even a year or so ago, I still thought the natural deodorant was too much.

I grew up on an island off the coast of Maine called North Haven. I have lived close to 25 of my 31 years on the island and I still live on the island. There are only 350 year-round residents in my hometown – mostly fishermen and caretakers and service workers. There is a beautiful ocean around us, no polluting factories, and life seems clean and safe. It is a great place to get away, it was a great place to learn about small town politics and getting things done, and it is sometimes a great place to hide from political life. So you get the picture: When you think of an offshore island, you think of peace and beauty and a clean environment.

Russ Libby and Rep. Hannah Pingree were two of 13 Mainers whose bodies were tested for – and showed – several toxic compounds.

So, more than a year ago, when I was asked to join 12 other Mainers to participate in a body burden study, I thought “fine, for the sake of public policy. This could be interesting.” The idea was to test 13 Mainers for certain toxic chemicals that have been known to show up in humans and cause problems. Of course I wasn’t especially excited about sharing my urine and 12 vials of blood and a few strands of my hair, but it was fairly simple and painless.

But a few months after I had donated parts of myself for testing, I got the call that the doctor was ready to talk to me about my results. The doctor, a Harvard Public Health researcher, was my former primary care doc from Vinalhaven – the island next door. So, how bad could it be? He was a great guy and I thought I’d be among their ‘cleanest’ test studies. But a sneaking dread started to set in … Why on earth did I really want to hear this information?

On a Sunday night in January I talked with Doctor Donahue for more than two hours. It was fascinating, frightening, and after I hung up the phone, I was no longer just going to be a casual political supporter of a more “rationale chemical policy.” I was now a convert who couldn’t stop talking about my results. Today, partially because I know now what is in my own body, I believe that toxic chemicals are one of the most significant environmental and health issues facing us today.

To give you an idea of how I was feeling, at about 9 p.m. on that Sunday night, after talking to Dr. Donahue, I sat down and wrote this email to every woman I knew of childbearing age in my address book. I said:

Hey Ladies,

I am participating in a study on toxics in the human body and was recently tested for a number of the major toxics (like mercury, lead, arsenic, etc.) as well as a few you have never heard of that begin with P’s and I can’t pronounce. I was shocked by some of my results and what was learned in Maine. This info is highly relevant to women in their childbearing years – which is why I thought of many of you, but in general, it is relevant to all of us– men and women.

I had high levels of mercury in my blood – the second highest in the state – and among the others in the study with similarly high levels, we all seemed to have one thing in common: Regular consumption of sushi tuna and a love for seafood. I only eat it about twice a month, but in general, the doctor said that any women who are likely to have kids within a couple of years shouldn’t eat sushi tuna, at all. I had heard you should avoid raw fish while pregnant and nursing, but mercury can stay in the body for a longer time – months, maybe a year, and accumulates in fat (which leaks into breast milk), so generally, big fish which live longer should be avoided before, during and while nursing–including tuna, swordfish, shark, king mackerel, etc. Fish that lives for a shorter time is ok – salmon, catfish, shellfish, sardines are fine.

Mercury is a neurotoxin that affects brain development of fetuses and nursing children. Behavioral and intelligence testing of a group of 7- and 14-year-olds exposed to mercury in utero showed increased risk of hyperactivity, inattentiveness and memory problems. The test showed that my mercury levels were above the safety standard for protection of a developing fetus from subtle but permanent brain damage.

Second, I had high levels of phthalates. I had never heard of phthalates before this study. But many women especially have high levels of phthalates. Unfortunately the likely culprit is perfume and personal care products that are scented.   Most commercial perfume in the U.S. contains phthalates, which are a plastic-like substance which makes perfumes last; it is also in nail polish, in smelly cosmetic products–from face creams to shampoos, etc. These same chemicals are also used in children’s soft plastic toys in the U.S.  Use of phthalates in cosmetics and kids’ toys has been banned in Europe since 2005, but unfortunately the U.S. hasn’t done anything to control their use.

Phthalates are like mercury in that they last in your body for several months and build up in fat, and they have been shown in studies to impact the endocrine system development–or the reproductive system of fetuses. In a major study, women with high levels of phthalates when pregnant had sons with 20% smaller genitals. Kind of a bummer.   A joint Swedish-Danish research team found a very strong link between allergies in children and the phthalates. I would avoid perfumes and cosmetics except the natural stuff if you have any respect for your future sons.  Check out the labels on all your personal care products and if it lists fragrance, it likely contains phthalates. Those you smear into your skin are obviously the worst.

Lastly, I had high levels of naturally occurring arsenic. It is probably from the well water I drink when visiting my dad.  But if you have a well–get it tested.  Maine has naturally high occurring arsenic in the ground and it seeps into our water.  Arsenic is a known carcinogen and it is not good. It only lasts in your body for a few days but can be damaging. You can get a filter to take the arsenic out of your well water.

The other thing I learned was not to consume too many products that come in plastic bottles–think soda and bottled water. A person in our study only drank bottled water.  She had many, many times more than the recommended CDC amount for a chemical called bisphenol-A which is directly linked to the plastic in bottled water. Bisphenol-A is an endocrine disruptor that has been shown to mimic human sex hormones, which is generally bad for our bodies. While it may be hard to function without drinking bottled water, it is really important to cut down. They also line soda cans with this stuff from time to time, or canned foods. Though water is good for you, and helps wash out some toxins, try to drink bottled water less often or put it in glass or safe metal-lined bottles.

Ok, I could go on and on about all the things I learned, but these seemed like big ones for women. We consume so much of this stuff without any notice. This is just the tip of the iceberg.  Luckily I had low lead levels, average levels of PBDEs – which come from flame-retardants in electronics and furniture, and average levels of 20 or so other chemicals, most of which I can’t pronounce.

For me, there are more and more reasons to consider natural products, when it comes to cleaners, cosmetics, even your shampoo, as well as really thinking carefully about what I eat.

Being part of this study allowed me to have several thousand dollars worth of chemical testing done. While it was interesting from a policy standpoint, mostly this stuff is just downright scary. But, in going over the results, I was mostly shocked by the lack of information we have as consumers. This info is especially powerful to folks with infants, kids, and who are likely to have kids in the next few years–but does impact us all.  I tell you all this because I care about you and want you and your family to be healthy.

Keep in touch,

I wrote this email the night I heard my test results, and as any of my co-workers, friends or family can attest, I haven’t shut up about this issue since!

The responses I heard from my friends and co-workers were amazing. Mostly outrage. “How come no one told us this?”  One friend, who recently graduated from medical school and is trying to get pregnant was appreciative and stopped drinking bottled water and wearing perfume while pregnant.  I actually left off a few friends from my list who were about to have their babies. I didn’t have the heart to send it to them. It is frustrating to think about all we don’t know that may be allowing us to make the wrong decisions.

Since participating in this study and getting press about our results, I have received countless emails, phone calls and words of condolence.  Some people have “fixes” to help me get the chemicals out.  The Lewiston Sun Journal led with the headline:  “So Young, So Toxic.”  And others on the street and in my community have told me they are sorry I have so many chemicals in my body.  What I am not sure everyone gets is that as far as I can tell, I am typical.  We are all filled with some varying level of toxic soup.  All our bodies are carrying some level of toxic burden.

A famous study of women in the Artic found some of the highest levels of toxic chemicals in the world, especially in their breast milk.  Who could be more remote and removed from the world than Native peoples in the Arctic? But, in reality, the fish and fats these people live on carry the chemicals and pollution we consume every day in America–and unfortunately, fish and fats seem to concentrate and hold these chemicals.  There is nowhere you can go to avoid the risk.

MOFGA’s own Russell Libby will be speaking shortly on a panel about the chemicals in his body.   Even Mr. MOFGA is quite polluted!  So, faced with this evidence, there are two things we can do.

1)    Give up.   or….

2)    Change our lifestyles to reduce our risk and start fighting like hell the political battles required to effect real change.

I hope you, like me, will choose the latter option.   Luckily, effecting change is my job as a legislator and what the people of my district elect me to do.  But I can’t do it alone, especially against one of the most powerful industries in the country.

So, what we have done so far in Maine?

While other federal governments around the world–especially in Europe–are tackling chemicals policy, the U.S. is far behind.   As with so many other environmental issues, it has been up to the states to take action. Maine is already a national leader in passing new laws to eliminate toxics from our homes and the environment. We have:

•    phased out mercury products, arsenic-treated wood and brominated flame retardants;

•    We have also established the financial responsibilities of manufacturers to pay for the safe collection and disposal of products containing toxic compounds, through the e-waste, lead paint and mercury thermostat initiatives.

This year, with the help of numerous environmental, public health and fire safety groups, we took on one class of particularly damaging chemicals called PBDEs – especially a chemical called Deca – which is the only remaining PBDE category flame retardant that is still used in household materials in the United States. It leaches off television sets and furniture and onto household dust, and is then inhaled or ingested.

It’s proven to cause harm to humans and the environment, as scientific research has found the deca chemical in animals, human breast milk and fat tissue, and deca is clearly linked to slower development in children and other health risks.  One particularly bad thing about deca is that when it burns it creates an especially toxic and dark smoke, damaging and dangerous for our firefighters.

A series of tests performed on mice pups by the Maine CDC and by researchers in Sweden showed decreased motor skills, including reflexes and physical strength, after a single exposure to deca. Studies show that children and adults in the United States have 10 to 100 times the amount of PBDEs in their bodies that Europeans do, because the U.S. is the largest consumer of PBDE flame-retardants in the world. Deca shows up in Maine’s harbor seals, in bird eggs, and almost everywhere in the natural environment you might care to look.

We also know that there are safer and effective alternatives to deca. Obviously, flame retardants provide fire safety, which is important.   But certain companies, like Sony, Apple, Panasonic and IKEA, are already moving away from deca to safer alternatives.  They might be motivated by health concerns, or liability concerns, but it is a promising trend to see manufacturers move in that direction voluntarily. Unfortunately, hundreds of other companies, especially those who produce low-cost technology, still use deca in their products, and the chemical companies that make this product are fighting hard to increase its usage in whole new lines of products.

Our bill, which we passed, will phase out deca in furniture starting in 2008, and electronics in 2010.  The bill I sponsored had the strong support of all of the major Maine firefighter organizations–who were among our best allies in a fight to ban a flame retardant; the Natural Resources Council of Maine; the Environmental Health Strategy Center; the Maine chapters of the American Lung Association; Academy of Pediatrics; and a host of more than 30 environmental and health advocates statewide.  The only opponent of the bill was the out-of-state chemical industry.

The day of the hearing made me very proud. Maine people packed into the Natural Resources Committee room to support the bill. There were pregnant women, Maine-based researchers, farmers, doctors, environmentalists, parents and grandparents.  On the other side of the issue were five people.  Two were paid lobbyists who represented the industry.  One was the industry’s lawyer, and another worked for the chemical industry.  The last man was a burn victim who had been paid by the chemical industry to come to Maine and testify against our bill.

Despite the chemical industry’s inability to rally any support for their position from average Mainers at the public hearing, they spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on a media campaign on the television and in newspapers, trying to convince Mainers to call their legislators and tell them not to ban deca.  The campaign flopped–maybe even backfired; few legislators got calls, and by the end of the session we passed the bill with near unanimous margins in both the House and the Senate. It was not a partisan issue, and my good friend Senator Dana Dow gave one of the most articulate speeches I have ever heard on the floor of the Senate about how this law needed to be a beginning, not an end, of this debate.

We were very proud to win on deca in Maine.  We were only the second state in the country to pass this law, and it helps us to continue Maine’s leadership on protection from toxics.  California considered a similar bill this past month, and the chemical lobby spent 10 million dollars to defeat it, and unlike in Maine, the chemical industry won by two votes.

Victories on individual chemicals like deca are important, but there are literally hundreds of untested and potentially harmful chemicals in products on shelves today.

In 1976, when the National Toxic Substances Control Act was enacted, 62,000 chemicals existed. According to a 2005 Government Accounting Office report, the EPA has required tests on fewer than 200 of those 62,000 chemicals since then. It is an outrage that the National Toxic Substance Control Act has not been reauthorized since 1976, despite mountains of evidence leading us to call for more proactive policies. The Bush administration has even gone so far as to weaken the EPA’s enforcement of the 1976 Act.

Nationally and in Maine we need to venture beyond specific chemical legislation to elements of broader reform. Chemical policy has to be about shifting the burden of proof. Today, it is up to us (whether it be nonprofits or universities or government) to pay for the studies of whether chemicals are bad for us and then prove that they are damaging in order to get companies to stop using them. How does it makes sense that consumers and taxpayers must pay to figure out what consumer products we are being sold that might be bad for our health? Reversing the tables is essential. We must require that the chemical industry prove the safety of chemicals before they bring them to market and put them into consumer products!

A bill that I’ve submitted for the 2008 legislative session aims to do just that.  I’m proposing a regular and reliable process in Maine of studying, testing and categorizing the chemicals that manufacturers of products introduce into our homes. We need to do three major things when it comes to toxic chemicals, and these are also part of the major conclusions of the body burden study I participated in.  So first, we need to:


• Search for safer substitutes for all chemicals shown to be hazardous.

• Require that all industrial chemicals be proven safe, especially for children.


• Honor the public’s right to know which hazardous chemicals are in what products.

• Require manufacturers to provide health and safety data on all industrial chemicals and require that chemical manufacturers test and prove the safety of all industrial chemicals in commerce.


• Invest in research and development (R&D) of biobased plastics from Maine potatoes and other “green chemistry” solutions that will boost the state’s economy.

• Establish a Green Chemistry Center for Sustainable Production within the University of Maine System to assess hazards and alternatives for harmful chemicals.

Some aspects of this proposed bill will be an uphill battle this coming session.  While we fought one industry with the deca bill, this bill will attract paid lobbyists and chemical industry money from around the country. We know we will be swarmed and we are prepared for the battle, but we can’t do it alone. We need you to get involved in this political fight to urge the Legislature and Governor that this is the right thing to do. We also need to demand that the federal government take up similar reform. We are battling to do the best we can in our small state. We also need a national solution to encourage real change.

Rep. Pingree talks with Fairgoers after her speech.

A good friend asked me on the ferry last week about my speech. She saw I was coming to the Fair to speak on this topic. She received my email rant last January and was already aware of this issue and concerned about it. She is smart and motivated but also the mom of two kids under three. She is busy with balancing kids and life, and mostly, she wanted to know what she could do. So, with the able assistance the Maine Environmental Strategy Center, here are:

The Top Ten Ways to Protect Your Family from Toxic Chemicals

10.    EAT FISH LOW IN MERCURY – such as wild salmon, haddock and shellfish, and AVOID tuna fish, swordfish and shark (including canned tuna and tuna in sushi).

9.    GET THE LEAD OUT – If your house is more than 30 years old, get a lead inspection, hire a professional to help clean up old lead paint and ask your doctor to test your young kids for lead exposure. You can also test toys and ceramics for lead with a simple test kit available at any hardware store.

8.    TEST YOUR DRINKING WATER – Many private wells in Maine are contaminated with arsenic, radon and uranium that leaches from the bedrock. Prevent cancer – test and treat the water if levels are high.

7.    AVOID PVC PLASTIC (also known as VINYL).

6.    AVOID PLASTIC BOTTLES – Don’t use plastic baby bottles or plastic reusable water bottles.

5.    PURCHASE SAFE BEAUTY PRODUCTS that are free of PHTHALATES (pronounced ‘thal – eights’).


3.    AVOID ‘MAGIC” COATINGS on furniture, carpets and clothing, Teflon-coated cookware and greasy fast food wrappers.

2.    JOIN A GROUP TO TAKE ACTION – Join like-minded people to make a difference, e.g., Alliance for a Clean and Healthy Maine (www.preventharm.org or www.cleanandhealthyme.org).


It has taken the chemical industry decades to invent these chemicals and put them into consumer products.  The bad news is that we can’t wait decades for a more rationale and safe policy to protect our health. The other side will spend millions to defeat real chemical policy reform. Like deca, we can overcome lobbyists and misleading media with voices of everyday Maine people. Please join this fight. As Margaret Mead urged us, we can never doubt that a group of thoughtful people can change this world. And we must. Thank you.

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