Paige Holmes of Lisbon, with her two sons, Mason (rear) and Owen, learned that she has high levels of phthalates in her body.
Ever since 35-year-old Paige Holmes of Lisbon became a mom seven years ago, she added a new task to her shopping trips.
"I started becoming a label reader. And I would read all these labels and I would try to pick the best products that I could for both myself and the boys," Holmes says.
Products that didn't contain any toxins. Holmes swapped vinyl shower curtains for cloth, switched plastic food containers for glass or stainless steel. When she submitted a urine sample to the Washington State Public Health Laboratory back in December for analysis, she says she never expected the jaw-dropping results for her phthalate levels.
"I was very high, I know, specifically for one or two," she says. "In fact, I was so high on this one phthalate that that's what boosted me up to be, unfortunately, the one that has the highest number."
Holmes had the highest levels of anyone in the group, and a level higher than 90 percent of Americans. Holmes attributes the findings to her use of cosmetics and personal care products that contain phthalates. Phthalates are also used to soften vinyl plastic products like backpacks, shower curtains and floor tiles.
Their widespread use is troubling, says Emma Halas-O'Connor, coordinator for the Alliance for a Clean and Healthy Maine, because studies have linked phthalates to serious health effects, including infertility, early puberty, learning and behavioral problems, and cancer. Halas-O'Connor says no one seems to be immune.
"The 25 Mainers we tested all come from different places with different occupations and daily routines," she said. "They include pregnant women, new moms, an electrician, nurses, past and current state legislators from both sides of the aisle. Still, our findings show one thing that all 25 Mainers have in common: All of their bodies are polluted with phthalates."
That includes the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association or MOFGA's Heather Spalding. At a press conference in Augusta, Spalding reminded the crowd that a similar biomonitoring study in 2007 found industrial chemicals in MOFGA's former Executive Director Russell Libby, who died about a year-and-a-half ago from prostate cancer.
"Russell Libby said we have to challenge the idea that contamination is just the price of living in a modern world," Spalding said.
After the 2007 study, Maine lawmakers passed the Kids Safe Products Act, which required Maine to adopt a list of high concern priority chemicals. It also required manufactuers to disclose toxic chemicals used in products and authorized the state to require safer alternatives.
"And that law, as wonderful as it is, has been underused," Spalding said, because phthalates aren't listed as a priority chemical.
That's why Paige Holmes, that dedicated label reader, has trouble avoiding them.
"You know, I've looked at all of our products and I've tried to research them online to see if I could discover what is causing such high levels, and I haven't been able to figure it out," Holmes says. "And I may never, until companies are made to really tell us what's in their products."
Democratic Rep. Gay Grant introduced a bill about a year ago to get phthalates listed as a priority chemcial, but the measure was tabled and has not bee resurrected. Grant was one of the study participants and says lawmakers need to use their policy tools to advance the Kids Safe Products Act.
As for now, another study participant, Megan Rice of Belgrade, says there's another tactic. "Today, I'm announcing that Maine citizens have begun taking matters into our own hands."
Rice and others are circulating petititions to require the Maine Department of Environmental Protection to initiate a rule-making process on phthalates, with a goal of listing four phthalates as priority chemicals. Rice says the petitions will be submitted by the end of April and she expects a public hearing this summer.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control says the health effects from exposure to low levels of phthalates are unknown and that more research is needed.
View the "Hormones Disrupted: Toxic Phthalates in Maine People" report.
Susan Sharon and Keith Shortall contributed to this story.
Photo: Susan Sharon