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Maine DEP Withdraws Formaldehyde Rule Proposal, Dismaying Environmentalists

Emre Kanik via Flickr CC

Say the word "formaldehyde" and you can practically smell it. The pungent preservative is associated with everything from nail polish and hair straightener to embalming fluid and fetal pigs. But it's also an ingredient found in a wide array of household items, such as glue, floor finish, paper and baby care products. 

"The whole point of the Kid Safe Products Act is to give Maine parents the right to know which toxic chemicals or cancer-causing chemicals are in everyday products," says Mike Belliveau of the Environmental Health Strategy Center.

Belliveau says his group and others have been trying to get formaldehyde added to the list of priority chemicals under the act. "And we're very frustrated and dismayed that, once again, Gov. LePage puts chemical industry profits ahead of the health of Maine children by withdrawing this formaldehyde rule."

In 2011, Gov. Paul LePage tried and failed to repeal a ban on the hormone-disrupting chemical bisphenol-A from baby bottles and sippy cups. At the time, he was quoted as saying the worst that could happen was that women would grow "little beards." 

That same year LePage also supported legislation - backed by the chemical industry - to gut the Kid-Safe Products Act. That also failed. Earlier this year, at a public hearing on the proposed rule on formaldehyde, Belliveau says a lobbyist for the American Chemistry Council vigorously opposed adding it to the state's priority chemical list. 

"He basically argued that the chemicals should not be listed by the state of Maine - that it's basically safe and that the federal government is reviewing it and there was no need for Maine to act," Belliveau says.

The problem, says Belliveau, is that the American Chemistry Council is an industry lobbying group funded by Koch Industries and other major producers of formaldehyde, and they've been working to delay federal action on formaldehyde for at least a decade, even after the U.S. government declared it a known carcinogen that causes leukemia and nose and throat cancers. 

Maine DEP Commissioner Patty Aho says the rule was withdrawn while the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency considers the risks posed by formaldehyde.

"We wanted to make sure that we had that information to inform our rulemaking," Aho says. "We'll be looking at that U.S. EPA information when we receive it in order to incorporate that into our priority chemical analysis."

Aho says the EPA's assessment is expected sometime this summer. But Belliveau and others say federal action on formaldehyde has been stalled for so long that it's necessary for states like Maine to take the lead. 

A spokesperson for the American Chemistry Council declined to talk on tape, but in a written statement, the ACC said formaldehyde has been thoroughly reviewed and assessed at the federal level since the early 80's, and that exposures from products that would be covered under the Maine regulation do not reach levels of public health significance. 

"The data is already there. The question is, when are we going to say 'No?' How many people have to be sick, how many people have to die, how many kids have to have asthma before we take action?" asks Sen. Geoffrey Gratwick, a Bangor Democrat.

Gratwick is a physician by training who serves on the Legislature's Environment and Natural Resources Committee. He says formaldehyde is a "no-brainer" when it comes to the types of chemicals you don't want kids being exposed to. 

Meanwhile, the Maine DEP has adopted three new rules naming arsenic, mercury and cadmium as priority chemicals under the Kid Safe Products Act. But environmental groups say the rules are redundant since they've already been phased out of children's products and information about them is already publicly available online.