In honor of Mother's Day this Sunday, May 10th we reached out to one of the coolest moms we know for this month's She Lives Major profile. Hannah Pingree is an innovative politician and chemical safety activist from Maine where she lives with her husband and two children. It was truly an inspiration talking to her about her impressive political career, her battle against toxic chemicals in the environment and household items (especially flame retardants), and raising her kids on a small island community.
You grew up on an island off the coast of Maine. How did that upbringing influence you as an adult?
I grew up on the island of North Haven, a town of 350 people, 12 miles off the coast of Maine. It is a beautiful and wonderful community that I feel lucky to be a part of. Small towns are not perfect, and we have our extremely grumpy months (March) where we are all sick of each other. But to grow up in a town where you know everyone, where you have so much independence as a kid, a sense of real safety, and regular interactions with people and characters of all kinds and ages is pretty amazing.
Growing up on the island certainly made me confident. My dad taught me to cross the bay alone in a boat as a young teenager and to do things like drive tractors and sleep in tree houses — things mainland kids might not do. I watched both of my parents run businesses, employ people, get involved and try to solve problems with their neighbors. That sense of responsibility and community had a significant impact on who I am today.
I returned home to the island in 2001 after college and a couple years at an internet company in New York City. I came home to help my mom run for higher office. I didn’t expect to stay, but a year later I was running for office myself. I didn’t necessarily expect to return to the island to raise my kids, but my Philly husband loves it, and we both make compromises to be on the island. I think we both appreciate the kind of childhood our kids are able to have because we live here.
You became a bit of a hero for us when we had a screening of the documentary Toxic Hot Seat here at UM HQ. Your activism work against fire retardants is impressive, what triggered your interest in the issue?
Early in my career as a state representative, a few advocates I had gotten to know from public health and environmental organizations asked me if I would consider sponsoring a bill to phase out certain dangerous flame retardants that could negatively impact the health of babies and pregnant women. We worked together, battled armies of lobbyists and misinformation campaigns, rallied parents, firefighters, and medical professionals. We enacted several laws that helped make Maine an early leader in the battle to phase out those flame retardants. I was learning about the complicated science of flame retardants, the dirty tricks of the corporations that produced those chemicals, and just how these additives to furniture and household products were impacting our health. In the course of my work on this issue, I was tested for chemicals in my own body along with 12 other Mainers. We all found that we were loaded with many of the chemicals of concern—mercury, BPA, the many of the types of toxic flame retardants—regardless of where we lived or how conscientious we tried to be. Ordinary consumers like us simply can't avoid these chemicals, even by eating organic food and avoiding obviously dangerous products like pesticides. The chemicals are in everything, and the big chemical companies want to keep it that way.
In your opinion, how can the consumer make a difference?
Let's start with the bad news: The more you learn about this issue—whether you're a parent, a firefighter, or just an ordinary consumer looking for information—the more overwhelming and depressing it can be. The health effects of these chemicals look worse and worse every time a new study is published, and the companies pushing them are very powerful.
That said we could each make better choices as consumers—buying personal care products that don’t contain the most harmful chemicals, avoiding pesticides in our foods and around our homes, and seeking out furniture that is flame retardant–free. But we can’t shop our way out of the problem, because it is impossible for consumers to get the information they need. Companies don’t have to disclose the chemicals they use and thousands of chemicals that may be harmful to our health are still in use—with little to no oversight by the EPA or state governments. Compared to Europe and many other industrialized nations, the U.S. is far behind when it comes to both regulation of concerning chemicals and disclosure.
A coalition called Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families (SCHF)—made up of organizations from the public health, disability advocacy, workers' rights, and environmental fields from across the country—is advocating for a major overhaul to our chemical safety system in Congress in an attempt to better protect the public health. Even in this challenging political environment, it is possible that legislation will pass in the next year that may improve the system. Joining SCHF online and contacting your Representatives and Senators to ask them to support the strongest possible bill is important. The chemical industry and their allies are pouring in millions (or more) to diminish reform efforts—so our voices are needed!
A second thing we can do is to contact the companies we regularly buy from and ask them to disclose the chemicals they use and use less harmful chemicals. Major companies from Wal-Mart to Target have begun to shift away from some of the chemicals of concern due to consumer pressure. So our questions, tweets, emails, and petitions are making a difference.
You've had an impressive career as a politician, joining the State Legislature at only 25! As a politician, and a mother, what are some issues you are tackling in the hopes of making a better place for your children?
I spent 8 years in the Maine State Legislature. I was term limited in 2010, after serving as the youngest female Speaker of the House in the country. During my time in office, I worked hard on issues like phasing out toxic chemicals, expanding health care and housing opportunities for families, and more local issues for my district to help protect and encourage fishing in communities like the one I live in. I am now on a “break” from politics, raising two young kids, serving on my local school board and a local housing group, hosting a public affairs television show, and helping to manage a family business. I believe strongly in public service and hope to be back in politics when my kids are older, but for now I believe that contributing to my local community as a parent and helping to provide jobs and opportunity is just as meaningful—if not more so—than some of the things I was able to do in politics. I also continue to work with environmental health groups in Maine and in Washington on issues relating to chemical reform, and I hope that if and when I return to politics, we’ll have made real progress on this issue. But, I am a hopeful person!
Your mother Chellie is also an active politician (apple doesn’t fall far from the tree!). In what ways did she influence and inspire you—as a politician and as a mother?
First, my mom was a great mom and has been an incredible role model ever since I was a little kid. Being a parent now, I think back on all the decisions both of my parents made and try to figure out how to make the same ones myself—from how they raised their kids, how they chose to teach us responsibility and hard work, and the importance of commitment to your community. When I was very little, my mom managed a market garden business, and then her business morphed into a mail-order sweater business (that's a longer story). Watching her build her own businesses, employ people, and make smart decisions along the way certainly inspired me as a little girl. And when, at the age of 13 or 14, my mom asked me if she should run for the State Senate, I was her biggest cheerleader and her hardest working campaigner. She won an uphill battle in a race many thought she couldn’t win, and became our State Senator, and then Maine Senate Majority Leader a few years later. Today, she serves as one of Maine’s two U.S. Congress people. I’ve worked passionately for her in many races. I love the issues and the people she fights so hard for, and she was my frequent counsel as I followed in her footsteps running for office.
What was the greatest lesson she taught you?
I think my mom taught me to be fearless, that women can and should be in charge—fixing their communities, their state, and their country. I try to carry her “we can make this happen” attitude with me in whatever I am doing. While it can be a bit insane and tiring at times, improving the world around you—in big or small ways—can be fun.