Toxics institute in Lowell plods on with tight budget

12/27/2006
By Used with permission from the Lowell Sun Online. By FRANK TUTALO Sun Statehouse Bureau

Thanks to the Lowell-based Massachusetts Toxics Use Reduction Institute, at least 90 restaurants will be using fewer chemicals to clean their kitchens, and many towns will be using less pesticide to control mosquitoes.

Some hair salons could even find themselves using more environmentally friendly hairspray and dyes.

"That's one that was brought to our attention," said the institute's director, Ken Geiser, laughing. "We would never have dreamed that we would focus efforts on hairstyling or things like that. But it turns out this is something the community people see as an exposure."

Despite having its budget cut by 6 percent, or $80,000, the institute, headquartered at UMass Lowell, plods on, Geiser said, before an awards ceremony at the Statehouse yesterday.

There, the institute doled out awards to six community-based projects, like one the Lowell Health Department took part in recently. That collaborative trained several health departments on how to protect children from harmful chemicals found in schools, households and child-care centers.

"We must work together at the local level to help make all the environment healthier for our children," said Acton Democratic Sen. Pam Resor, an advocate of the program and keynote speaker at the ceremony.

The institute has worked with more than 700 businesses and trained 900 professionals since it started in 1989, as part of the Toxics Use Reduction Act.

In that same time period, there has been a 41 percent drop in the use of toxic chemicals, and a 50 percent reduction in the use of toxic byproducts, according to the state Department of Environmental Protection.

Now, the DEP is working with the state of Maine to develop a database of mercury-free products to offer alternatives to the chemical proven to pollute water supplies. The same database could be given to Massachusetts, Geiser explained.

Andover Democratic Sen. Susan Tucker said the institute "costs little, but gets big results."

"You can't fool Mother Nature," Tucker added. "The only solution is to reduce the amount of toxins."

The institute boasts what is perhaps New England's best library for alternative chemistries and alternative technologies, Geiser said.

The agency, which derives its funding through the UMass budget, employs 12 full-time persons, yet has only a $1.5 million budget. This year, it faces an almost certain budget cut.

"We do quite a bit with our budget," Geiser said, noting several interns volunteer also. "We push it a lot."

Frank Tutalo's e-mail address is ftutalo@lowellsun.com

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