AUGUSTA, Maine (Reuters) - Hannah Pingree was so alarmed when she learned she had dangerously high levels of mercury, arsenic and other toxic chemicals in her body that she took her case to the Maine state legislature and challenged chemical makers.
As the majority leader of Maine’s House of Representatives, she sponsored legislation that gave the state the authority to broadly identify and investigate “chemicals of high concern” in consumer products, particularly those that may reach children.
The bill, signed into law in April, makes Maine the first U.S. state with such authority and could serve as a model for other U.S. states trying to fill a regulatory void left by the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
Just five chemicals out of 82,000 known to be hazardous to human health, for instance, have been banned by the EPA since 1976, the most recent being asbestos in 1989.
Maine’s law coincides with mounting concerns in the United States over chemicals found in everyday products, from cars to clothes, and follows similar European Union laws.
The EU in 1999 banned phthalates -- chemicals used to make plastic more flexible -- and last year implemented a law known as REACH (Registration, Evaluation and Authorization of Chemicals) that requires businesses to prove substances in everyday products are safe and submit data about them.
Maine’s bill echoes the EU approach. It requires makers of toxic chemicals to notify state authorities of the quantity and purpose of the chemicals and work to develop safer alternatives.
Experts are watching to see if Maine’s law will lead to tougher measures nationwide, while an organization representing chemical manufacturers expressed concern that layers of new state-by-state regulations could hurt the industry.
Under the law, Maine will test chemicals and issue a “certificate of non-compliance” to manufacturers stating their chemicals do not meet state laws. The state can notify retailers the product contains toxic chemicals and legislation can be approved to ban its sale.
Pingree, 31, was one of 13 people tested in a study sponsored by an environmental group. All 13 had potentially toxic chemicals in their bodies.
“I just got married last summer and am interested in having kids in the next few years, and those chemicals could have a dangerous impact on me and my ability to bear children,” she said.
Although it’s unclear how the chemicals entered the bodies of the people tested, mercury, arsenic and phthalates are common in many consumer products.
“Maine is sending a clear message to the federal government that where they have failed, states will act,” said Pingree, a Democrat.
Environmentalists in Maine say there is growing evidence that harmful toxic chemicals are working their way into the state’s ecosystem. A study, conducted by biologist Wing Goodale at the BioDiversity Research Institute in Gorham, Maine, revealed the presence of more than 100 man-made chemicals in 23 species of bird eggs from across the state.
Goodale’s research provided further ammunition for supporters of the Maine legislation, revealing that birds were ingesting toxic chemicals through their food chain and passing them on to their eggs.
Although some chemicals banned in the 1960s and 1970s were shown to have decreased in birds, new substances are taking their place -- from flame-retardants to water repellents, pesticides and mercury, the study said.
Goodale said the chemicals could damage neurological, reproductive and immune systems of birds, harm their livers and affect their hormone functions.
Both the human and bird studies showed elevated levels of chemicals such as the plastic softener phthalates that are used in cosmetics, lubricants, and wood finishers, and bisphenol A, found in some plastic packaging, including baby bottles.
Flame retardants known as polybrominated diphenyl ethers, or PBDEs, turned up in humans as well as birds, the Maine studies showed. PBDE’s are used to make televisions, carpeting, furniture and mattresses.
The studies also turned up a family of perfluorochemicals known as PFC’s used in making upholstery resistant to stains.
A U.S. government study released in April showed that bisphenol A may be tied to early puberty as well as prostate and breast cancer. Based on draft findings by the National Toxicology Program, part of the U.S. National Institutes of Health, senior congressional Democrats asked the Food and Drug Administration to reconsider its view that bisphenol A is safe in products for use by infants and children.
Critics say Maine’s law could hurt manufacturers.
“It’s a high price for Maine to bear to attempt to replicate federal agencies who are better equipped to deal with these issues,” said Roger Bernstein, managing director of state and government affairs at the American Chemistry Council, an industry body representing chemical manufacturers. “It makes more sense to have one federal system.”
Other U.S. states have also begun to act on chemicals in consumer products. Washington state signed into law on April 1 legislation that places restrictions on the manufacture of children’s products containing lead, cadmium and phthalates.
In February, the Massachusetts Senate approved a bill to identify dangerous chemicals in household goods, but the legislation has yet to be passed into law.
In 2007, Washington became the first state to ban toxic flame retardants, and California banned toys containing phthalates. Lawmakers in Maryland, Nebraska and Hawaii have been considering bills similar to Maine’s legislation.
Editing by Jason Szep and Philip Barbara