PORTLAND, Maine — Bettyann Sheats said when her daughter was younger, they used to enjoy making crafts together. The Auburn woman said she later was shocked to learn that some of the metal charms they used to make beaded bracelets contained lead, and others may have contained cadmium, both toxic metals.

Sheats was one of eight Maine women on Monday morning to board a plane for Washington, D.C., where they were scheduled to join 140 other mothers from a total of 40 states as part of the Safe Chemicals Stroller Brigade. Following the stroller demonstration on the lawn of the U.S. Capitol Tuesday, the Maine contingent is slated to meet with members of the state’s congressional delegation to lobby for what the women are calling badly needed updates to the 1976 federal Toxic Substances Control Act.

“Of the over 80,000 chemicals on the market today, the Environmental Protection Agency has only evaluated about 200 of those chemicals for health and safety,” said Tracy Gregoire, director of the Healthy Children’s Project for the Learning Disabilities Association of Maine and one of the eight women leaving for Washington. “And only about five of those chemicals have been restricted or banned since 1976.”

Gregoire, Sheats and others want to see amendments to the Chemical Safety Improvement Act — proposed as a modern complement to the TSCA and co-sponsored by Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine — requiring federal regulators to test chemicals for their health effects across a variety of consumers, including children and pregnant women, not just the more statistically resilient adult males.

Elisa Boxer is a leading environmental health activist who was spurred into action almost a decade ago when her infant son became ill with breathing problems tied to chemicals used in the construction of her family’s new home at the time. Boxer said the new Chemical Safety Improvement Act must also include language ensuring stronger state laws, like Maine’s 5-year-old Kid Safe Product Act, aren’t pre-empted by weaker federal ones.

Boxer said Monday before boarding the plane that it’s difficult for parents to know what products contain harmful chemicals and which ones do not.

She said the use of phthalates and parabens — chemical compounds associated with increased risks of breast cancer and found in everything from plastics to cosmetics — can often be hidden from consumers. Boxer said they are used in mixtures listed only on product labels as “fragrance,” and are legally protected under the vague titling as proprietary trade secrets.

“I am here today first and foremost as a mother of a 4-year-old who has sensory processing challenges,” Gregoire said. “It’s very discouraging to try and find out which chemicals are safe. … When my son turned 4 years old, he wanted to decorate for his birthday party, and I was horrified to find out that the streamers I bought had flame-retardant chemicals in them. Chemicals are everywhere and families just can’t shop our way out of this problem.”

Seth Koenig

Seth has nearly a decade of professional journalism experience and writes about the greater Portland region.