by Elisa Hawkes
Coastal Journal staff
On May 21, a bus filled with Maine women departed on a trip to Washington D.C. to meet with senators Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins seeking support for the Safe Chemicals Act. The women ranged in age from college students to grandmothers, but all shared a mission: To fight the use of toxic chemicals in everyday products.
The trip was sponsored by the Alliance for a Clean and Healthy Maine, a coalition of Maine-based organizations that began a campaign to phase out the toxic chemicals in products that they say build up in the food supply and people’s bodies.
According to the Alliance for a Clean and Healthy Maine (ACHM), The Safe Chemicals Act would replace TSCA (toss-ka), the Toxic Substances Control Act, passed in 1976 under President Gerald Ford. It is the country’s main law aimed at regulating chemicals used in everyday products, but public health and safety organizations are calling for an overhaul of TSCA. The law is generally held to be unable to protect the health of the American public from exposure to harmful chemicals. TSCA approved more than 60,000 chemicals that were in existence prior to 1976, only 200 of which have been tested for safety. ACHM says there are now 80,000 chemicals on the market, most of which have never been properly tested for safety. According to the EPA, companies are allowed to keep ingredients in some chemicals secret. In fact, the EPA tried to use TSCA to outlaw asbestos 20 years ago – and failed.
The current law (TSCA) does not require companies to prove products are safe before they are put on the market. Rather, interested parties must prove they are harmful.
According to ACHM, the dangerous chemicals in everyday products do not belong in homes.
Organization officials say, “Dangerous chemicals…are found in products we use every day, including plastic containers, water bottles, frying pans, toys, shampoo, and medical supplies.
“Toxic chemicals are linked to expensive chronic diseases, like cancer, diabetes, learning disabilities, and reproductive problems, and result in at least $380 million in health costs every year in Maine alone. Children are particularly vulnerable.”
Amanda Sears, Associate Director for Environmental Health Strategy Center and co-founder of Alliance for a Clean and Healthy Maine, said, “The people going to Washington on the bus are active parents. The idea is to have parents tell their stories to the Senators rather than professional lobbyists. The participants were self-selected from the organizations associated with the alliance.”
The group will go to a rally in the morning of the National Stroller Brigade. In the afternoon they will meet with the two senators and the staffs of Representatives Chellie Pingree and Michael Michaud, who were previously engaged.
Sears said members of the ACHM feel Senators Snowe and Collins need to support the Safe Chemicals Act in order to garner bipartisan support in the Senate. The Act will be voted on to come out of committee within the month. Hopefully, the Act will go to the entire Senate for a vote this summer. Sears said activists hope to get Republican Senators Snowe and Collins on board. There are no Republican members of the Senate among the 16 co-sponsors of the bill.
The women from ACHM have been collecting signatures on a petition calling for support of the Safe Chemicals Act for almost two months. The goal had been to collect 2,500 signatures. To date, signatures received from the Maine website totaled approximately 2,600. The national petition provided an additional 1,400 signatures, bringing the total to approximately 4,000 signatures.
Tracy Gregoire is the Topsham mom of a three-year old son. She works for the Learning Disabilities Association of Maine as their Healthy Children’s Project Director. She, along with Emma Halas-O’Connor, led the grassroots effort to organize the bus trip.
Gregoire said, “Every day, I struggle to figure out which products are safe for my son. As a parent, my job is to project my son from harm. But I cannot do it alone…my son is healthy and started speaking at an early age. But I know so many parents whose children have learning and developmental disabilities. Some of these children cannot even communicate their basic needs to their parents, let alone do the everyday activities that many of us take for granted. It is heartbreaking to know that over a quarter of these disabilities are caused in whole or in part by environmental factors, including toxic chemicals, and then to have face the fact that our government does not even require thorough testing of chemicals before coming on the market and being used in products.”
Bridgett McCoy just finished her first year at Bowdoin College. She explains why she is going to Washington, D.C., “While I’ve always been sensitive to environmental issues, I only became aware of the prevalence and risks of the chemicals in the products I use everyday after I spent a summer canvassing for Clean Water Action. Since birth, I have been unprotected from harmful chemicals by existing legislation. While I have been lucky and suffered no serious health side effects, friends of mine have not been so lucky, and I cannot guarantee that my children will be. I am lobbying with the Environmental Health Strategies Center for the Safe Chemicals Act of 2011 so I can seek greener, safer, and cheaper alternatives in the future and have peace of mind when using manufactured products.”
Bettie Kettell lives in Durham and has two young grandchildren. She has been an operating room nurse for nearly 40 years. Kettel said, “I’m on this bus as part of my decade-long environmental journey that introduced me to chemical policy reform. It is very important to me as a mother, as a grandmother – particularly as a grandmother – as a nurse, and a breast cancer survivor that we have safer products in our environment.”
Mothers, grandmothers, students, women from all walks of life came together to travel to our nation’s capital in search of answers and in hope of fixing a problem they feel exists in the lives of all Mainers; one busload of women, armed with 4,000 signatures and a great deal of hope.