Teach In

Winter 2007-2008
Sharon Tisher (left) moderated a Public Policy Teach-In about toxic compounds found in Maine’s environment and people. Amanda Sears reviewed the “Body of Evidence” study in which 13 Maine residents were tested and found to have numerous harmful compounds in their bodies.

Body of Evidence: Toxics in Maine People

The first step in eliminating toxic chemicals from our bodies is knowing what’s there, and that was the goal of the “Body of Evidence” study conducted in 2007 by the Alliance for a Clean and Healthy Maine. Study participants discussed results of the study at a MOFGA Public Policy Committee Teach-In at the Common Ground Country Fair.

The five-year-old Alliance is a coalition of Maine nonprofits trying to phase out the use of toxic chemicals in everyday products, and to promote safer alternatives. Over 50 organizations have endorsed the principles of the Alliance (and others are welcome to join); nine organizations are represented on the steering committee:  the Environmental Health Strategy Center, Learning Disabilities Association of Maine, Maine Labor Group on Health, Maine People’s Alliance, MOFGA, the Natural Resources Council of Maine, Physicians for Social Responsibility, Maine Public Health Association and the Toxics Action Center.

For the body burden study, 13 Maine residents from a range of backgrounds (mother, furniture store owner, fishing camp owner, teacher, high school student …) that should reflect Maine’s population volunteered to have their blood, urine and hair tested by an independent lab. People with known exposures, such as chemical plant workers, were not subjects. The study, conducted by the Alliance in cooperation with a toxicologist at the University of Southern Maine (USM) and Dr. Rick Donahue, a Maine family practitioner, was reviewed by the USM Office of Research Compliance.

Amanda Sears of the Environmental Health Strategy Center opened the Teach-In by noting previous studies in other states.  One study of nine adults, for instance, found 167 out of 214 toxic chemicals screened. Of these, 76 are carcinogens; 94 are neurotoxins; and 79 cause birth defects–by themselves. “We know little about what happens when a cocktail of chemicals builds up in our bodies,” Sears pointed out.

Another study of newborns found a total of 287 chemicals in their umbilical cord blood.

Maine’s Burden

The Maine study looked for 71 chemicals from seven categories:  brominated flame retardants, PFCs (perfluorcarbons, Teflon chemicals), phthalates (found in fragrances and some soft plastics), bisphenol-A (added to some plastics, such as Nalgene bottles), mercury, arsenic and lead. The result: 46 of the 71 chemicals were present in the group. (The complete report is available at www.cleanandhealthyme.org.)

“All participants had measurable levels of six of the seven categories tested,” said Sears. “On average, each person had 36 of the 71 chemicals tested for.” The mean concentration of phthalates was greater than that of 95% of Americans tested.

Of the brominated flame retardants, 28 of the 46 tested were found, with the highest in a nurse who worked in a hospital that had installed a lot of new equipment that contained the retardants. Russell Libby, MOFGA’s executive director, who leads a relatively low-tech, clean lifestyle and is careful about what he eats, had the most different kinds of brominated flame retardants in his body.

Three of the PFCs detected in the Maine study were at concentrations above the mean found in other studies. The furniture store participant had the highest concentrations.

Bisphenol-A, used in polycarbonate plastics, baby bottles, Nalgene bottles and the linings of some tin cans, was six to 10 times the national mean in three of the female participants.

Some participants had high concentrations of toxic metals, as well.

“So people are routinely exposed to these hazardous chemicals,” said Sears. “Everyday products and materials are a major source of chemical exposure. These chemicals pose a potentially serious threat to human health. They have been identified in lab studies as chemicals that can cause harm, and they’re building up in our bodies. We’re soaking these chemicals up like sponges. The safety system for industrial chemicals is broken.  We need legislation to wring out toxic chemicals in Maine.”

Regina Creeley, another “Body of Evidence” test subject, teaches Special Education in Old Town and has seen a dramatic increase in the number of children with learning problems during her decades in the field.

Teacher’s Take

Study participant Regina Creeley, a special education teacher from Old Town, told of her experiences as a 23-year veteran of teaching in one classroom and of her 40 years of experience in education. (She started volunteering in education programs when she was 14.)

“Even little old school teachers have toxins in our bodies,” she said. “I would probably have fewer health problems without these toxins.” She focused not on herself, though, but on the “more and more and more special ed children throughout Maine and the United States. More and more Maine children are having trouble learning to subtract, read, write, make decisions, understand the world.”

Creeley has tried to make this point to her community, but has been told that the problem is due to increased drug use or poor parenting. “I’ve been in the same community for 23 years,” countered Creeley. “I know there are more children who have obvious problems learning. Other problems – asthma, insulin-dependent diabetes – are increasing, too. The CDC says one in six American children has a developmental disorder; the increase in autism in Maine over the last 10 years is well over 1000%.” She thinks the problem is not widely noticed because most people haven’t spent as much time over as many years with kids as she does; even most special ed teachers burn out fairly quickly, so they don’t have her long-term perspective.

“The Maine study showed the extensive presence of neurotoxins,” said Creeley. “I like to change the word ‘neurotoxins’ to ‘brain poisons.’ If we saw a child about to drink bleach, we would snatch it away. We must look around and remove the poisons; we must childproof our environment.” Creeley is promoting a law that would remove the 25 micrograms of ethyl mercury that is present in the common flu shot given to children. “Eight other states have gotten that bill passed,” she said.

Libby: Systemic Change Needed

Russell Libby, another study participant, picked up on the school theme. “I was a school board member for three years. One of the big budget issues was special ed costs. It is very expensive to care for kids who need special attention.”

Regarding concentrations of toxic chemicals in his own body, Libby noted that he tries to avoid these substances, having old rugs and furniture in his home; eating good food; and having a low-tech household, except for his laptop, “which I’m sure is one place I’m getting flame retardant residue.” Still, he had as many chemicals in his body as anyone else in the study.

Libby noted that a lobbyist for the flame retardant industry said, at hearings in Augusta, that there is no evidence that the flame retardant Deca breaks down into Octa or Penta or other smaller units of the chemical. Libby attended the hearing and “had the results of the study in my briefcase. There has to be breakdown, because nobody manufactures the 9-version, but I have the 9 [in my body], and the 7. So something is breaking into pieces and sticking in our bodies.”

Individuals should tell manufacturers who use toxic chemicals why they aren’t buying their products any more, Libby suggested. “Companies change in response to pressure. Eating good, healthy, organic food from your local farmer is part of the solution, but systemic change is also necessary. We knocked one [flame retardant] off the list in the Maine Legislature. We’re not going to live long enough to solve the problem this way. We need systemic changes all the way through.” This, he said, is why MOFGA is part of the Alliance.

Libby added that the study did not test for pesticide residues, “yet many pesticides act in the same way as plastic residues – they mimic hormones that make your body go awry.”

Fired-up by Flame Retardants

Rep. Hannah Pingree, a 30-year-old Maine legislator from the island of North Haven, had one of the highest concentrations of mercury of the Maine study subjects; and she had high concentrations of phthalates – “and I don’t wear a lot of perfume and cosmetics. Probably some cheap shampoo that was smelly made me somewhat high in phthalates,” she said at the Teach-In.

Pingree is especially concerned about the toxins in her body because she recently married and would like to have children soon. “We spend our entire life building some level of chemical burden up in our bodies. It’s going to impact us when we make decisions, such as having children.”

When she served on the Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee for two years, “I couldn’t believe people coming to hearings with two or three kids with autism. Many are convinced their kids got autism after receiving vaccines with thimerisol,” a preservative that contains mercury. The vaccine issue has not been resolved, said Pingree.

“We spend billions of dollars [on health care] in this country, yet we’re one of the unhealthiest countries in the world,” Pingree continued. While many Mainers would benefit from more exercise and from not smoking, “I really do believe that toxic chemicals are one of the main public health issues that we all need to be thinking about.”

Pingree called Amanda Sears, Mike Belliveau, and NRCM leaders “some of the leading thinkers in this country about how to move comprehensive chemical policy legislation. They’re really smart and they did an incredible job organizing an alliance that went from the firefighters to doctors to environmental organizations. They’ve been very successful in Maine. They asked me to push [the Deca] legislation, and then got me all fired up by having me tested!

“I still believe,” Pingree said, “that ‘As Maine goes, so goes the nation.’ Other states will follow the small states, then policy makers in Washington will pay attention.”

Libby added, “If we could have an organic Maine with 1.3 million people eating good food and getting rid of these chemicals, that would send a big message to the rest of the country.”

Take Political Action

Mike Belliveau, director of the Environmental Health Strategy Center and cofounder of the Alliance for a Clean and Healthy Maine, brought the Teach-In back to the present: “Just this morning, about 20 babies were born in Maine, every one of them with hundreds of industrial chemicals in their bodies before they took their first breath. It doesn’t have to be this way.

“The safety system for industrial chemicals in this country is badly broken, and we know we’re not going to see leadership at the federal government level in the near future, so we need to lead by example in Maine.

“But we can’t lifestyle our way out of the problem,” he added. “We need to fix the system, and that requires changing policy, which requires taking political action. To have an impact, you don’t need to be able to outlawyer the lawyers for the chemical industry; just take action.

“We also need to avoid getting in touch with our inner cynic,” said Belliveau. “Yes, the system is problematic…and corrupt in certain respects. Corporate power is dominant across the land, including in Augusta, Maine. The deck is stacked against us. The flame retardant industry alone spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on just one issue in Maine this year, but we can overcome that. We have a whole bunch of progressive legislation that people fought for and enacted in Maine. Although we may not be the biggest consumer market in the country, we are a public policy market.  We can have a ripple effect across the nation.”

He urged people to contact state legislators, emphasizing that just five calls to a Maine legislator “is huge. Tell them you heard about the study at the Teach-In, and you’re very concerned about chemicals and their effects on children’s health. Ask: What are you going to do about this? Tell them you also heard that Rep. Hannah Pingree is going to introduce legislation in January to request that children’s products have no toxic chemicals in them, and ask, ‘Will you support this legislation?’” Contacting legislators now, before the Legislature reconvenes in January, will help.

Belliveau also said to demand the right to know what chemicals are in what products, and what the hazards are.  “Join the Alliance. Go to the [Web] site [www.cleanandhealthyme.org]. Sign up for email alerts. There’s power in numbers.”

He also supported the R&D bond issue on the November ballot that would invest $50 million into developing the state’s economy. InterfaceFABRIC, for example, is a Maine “corporate hero” that makes fabric from corn for commercial interiors. The fabric is nontoxic, petroleum-free and can be composted at the end of its useful life. The same fabric can be made from Maine potatoes, boosting Maine’s economy. Belliveau rephrased the old DuPont slogan: “Better living through green chemistry.”

Q & A

One comment addressed the mountains of out-of-state trash that are growing or being burned in Maine so that “a few people can make a lot of money.” Pingree said, after her keynote speech just before the Teach-In, that burning out-of-state trash “is part of the reason we have these chemicals in our bodies. The idea of bringing out-of-state trash to burn in Maine is something we should all be outraged about.” She also said that opposing the proposed coal gasification plant in Wiscasset, which she believes would release more mercury into the environment, is something that people should rally behind. “Go to that town and stand up for those people.”

Asked if genetically-engineered crops would be used in fabric made by Interface, Belliveau answered, “One of the reasons they want to stop making the stuff out of corn is because corn is GMO. Maine potatoes are not genetically-modified.  They [Interface] have the ability to contract for what they want, and they don’t want GMO.  And they have the potential to drive a new market for new varieties of potatoes that have reduced inputs of fertilizers and minimize pesticide use and are not GE.”

Asked how to get rid of existing stocks of toxic chemicals, Belliveau told people to contact their town offices to find out when its hazardous waste collection dates are. Material collected is sent to an out-of-state hazardous waste landfill.  This system “is not perfect, but it’s more secure than dumping it” in a regular landfill.  Pingree urged people to check www.preventharm.org for a list of products and their toxicity. “You have to be vigilant,” she concluded.

Mainers Can Get the Toxics Out – of Bodies, Environment: 2007 Fair Keynote Speech by Hannah Pingree

Some Air Fresheners Contain Toxic Chemicals

A recent study by the Natural Resources Defense Council found that 12 out of 14 air fresheners tested positive for harmful levels of pthalates, which cause reproductive problems and disrupt hormones in humans. Neither the FDA nor the EPA spot checks for toxic chemicals in air fresheners. Of the tested products, the only two products that did not contain pthalates were Febreze Air Effects and Renuzit Subtle Effects. The other 12 products tested positive, even though some were labeled natural. (Organic Bytes #119, Oct. 4, 2007, Organic Consumers Assoc.,


An Environmental Working Group investigation revealed that hundreds of cosmetics sold in the United States contain chemicals that even the cosmetic industry deems unsafe—many of them banned in other countries.  Examples include hydrogen peroxide in contact lens cleaners, formaldehyde in mascara, selenium in shampoo and moisturizer, and lead acetate in hair coloring. The FDA does not have to approve cosmetics as safe, and some 90% of ingredients in personal care products have not been assessed for safety. (“447 Cosmetics on U.S. Shelves Unsafe When used as Directed,” Environment News Service, Sept. 28, 2007; results of EWG’s investigation: www.ewg.org/node/22610)

Leaded Lipsticks

According to the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, 61% of the brand-name lipsticks tested contained lead, and one-third of lipsticks tested contained more lead than the FDA limit for lead in candy.

(“Popular lipsticks test positive for lead,” by Jessica Dickler, CNNMoney.com, Oct. 12 2007; https://money.cnn.com/2007/10/12/news/companies/lipstick_lead/index.htm?postversion=2007101210)

Toxic PVC Packaging Violates Laws

Over 60% of polyvinyl chloride (PVC) packaging tested by state environmental agencies contains toxic heavy metals that violate laws in 19 states. “This new study underscores the need for a global phase out of PVC packaging,” said Michael Schade of the Center for Health, Environment and Justice. Many manufacturers and retailers are phasing out PVC packaging due to its toxicity, particularly its release of dioxin, a strong carcinogen. Some PVC products have the number “3,” “PVC” or the letter “V” inside the recycling symbol. Not all PVC products are labeled as such, but soft, flexible PVC products (common in baby toys) often have an odor similar to vinyl shower curtains. (“Study Says PVC Packaging Violates Consumer Safety Laws in 19 States, Organic Bytes #114, July 26, 2007, https://www.organicconsumers.org/articles/article_6091.cfm)

Lead Correlated with Criminality

Economist Rick Nevin has found a dramatic, decades-long association between lead poisoning in children and increased crime rates 20 years later; results spanned nine countries. “Sixty-five to ninety percent or more of the substantial variation in violent crime in all these countries was explained by lead,” Nevin told the Washington Post.   Other studies show that as a neurotoxin, lead causes impulsivity and aggression – possibly explaining much higher murder rates in U.S. counties with high lead pollution compared with counties with low levels; and much higher lead levels in Pittsburgh adolescents who had been arrested compared with a general population of adolescents. (“Research Links Lead Exposure, Criminal Activity,” by Shankar Vedantam, Washington Post, July 8, 2007;

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