More than 300,000 pounds of long-lasting toxic chemicals were released into Maine's environment over two years, according to state and federal pollution data.
BANGOR, Maine More than 300,000 pounds of long-lasting toxic chemicals were released into Maine's environment over two years, according to state and federal pollution data.
It could be a generation or more before the full impact of exposure to lead, mercury, arsenic and lesser-known chemicals is felt in increased rates of cancer, learning disabilities and other ailments.
But with a report released Wednesday morning, local activists are calling on state legislators, corporations and consumers to take action now to protect public health.
"These poisons -- are accumulating in the bodies of our children and are going to cause lifelong health effects," Dr. Peter Millard, a Bangor physician, said Wednesday.
The Maine People's Alliance and the Environmental Health Strategy Center, both nonprofit groups with an interest in health and environmental issues, joined forces to analyze state and federal pollution records in 2001 and 2002.
The result, a 71-page report titled "The Persistent Polluters of Maine," found that 14 harmful chemicals were frequently released into Maine's air and water by industrial manufacturers, waste incinerators, paper mills and power plants. In total, more than 100 businesses released at least one of the chemicals.
The most frequent persistent toxic chemicals released in Maine included dioxins, arsenic and a number of heavy metals, such as mercury, as well as lesser-known compounds -- all of which have proven or suspected health effects.
Some of the chemicals, like lead and mercury, have been recognized as toxic for decades. Others, like the brominated flame retardants used to treat clothing and furniture, have only recently been recognized as potential risks when studies found them in mothers' breast milk and in human liver tissue.
"We need to heed these early warnings," said John Dieffenbacher-Krall, co-director of the Maine People's Alliance.
While their impacts vary, all of these chemicals are alike in the fact that they remain in the environment, and in the human body, for decades or longer.
Many environmental groups are shifting their focus from individual toxins to an overall review of industrial chemicals. The federal review system for new chemicals is not as stringent as the approval structures for new drugs or pesticides, said Mike Belliveau, executive director of the Environmental Health Strategy Center.
And several of these chemicals are not addressed by emissions laws, or are legal in small amounts, despite the potential cumulative effects.
"Ultimately, we need federal leadership, and it's totally lacking," Belliveau said.
In the absence of federal action, businesses have taken a lead. For instance, Maine hospitals have shifted to digital thermometers and Microsoft has pledged to phase out its use of PVC -- a type of plastic that emits dioxins when burned.
Corporate responsibility could become increasingly common as consumers demand "safer" alternatives, Belliveau said.
And a few key states -- Maine among them -- have already started to regulate the sale and disposal of a number of products that contain persistent toxic chemicals.
For example, mercury thermostats and switches and arsenic-treated "pressurized" lumber have been addressed by state laws.
A number of new initiatives supported by environmental and public health groups also are on tap to be considered by the 122nd Legislature when it returns after the holidays:
--The governor is supporting a million-dollar bond proposal to fund the removal of lead paint in old houses, through the Maine State Housing Authority. Legislators also will consider a fee on products that contain lead as a means of raising separate funds to prevent lead poisoning.
--Legislators will weigh a plan for funding both the cleanup of outdated chemicals from school laboratories and the collection of household hazardous waste with a new consumer fee on pesticides.
--A plan to ban the sale in Maine of toys, cards and clothing that contain tiny batteries containing mercury will come back for consideration after being sent out for further study last year.
"The Persistent Polluters of Maine" report will be available online within the next few weeks, at http://www.preventharm.org and http://www.mainepeoplesalliance.org/mprc.htm In the meantime, contact Dieffenbacher-Krall at 990-0672 to request a paper or digital copy of the report.
Source: Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News