By Alexandra Rome
We learned in high school chemistry class that the human body is simply a living, breathing mixture of chemicals. What we’re not taught, what few of us grasp, is that increasingly our bodies are part of a vast chemistry experiment, bombarded daily by industrial and agricultural toxic substances.
I volunteered to be one of nine people tested for 210 of these chemicals four summers ago. Thirteen vials of blood were drawn, and urine samples over a 24-hour period were collected from each participant and shipped overnight to labs in Kansas and California for evaluation.
The organizations that collaborated on the study — the Mount Sinai School of Medicine; the Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit research and education organization; and Commonweal, a Bolinas-based nonprofit health and environmental research institute — wanted to discover what scientists call our “body burden.” Our industrialized society leaves its chemical imprint on us. Industrial, agricultural and waste management practices introduce chemicals that linger in food, air, water and soil — and enter our bodies when we breathe, eat and drink. Some chemicals in consumer products also contaminate us.
This is my test result: I have measurable levels of 86 out of the 210 chemicals, including 27 different compounds from the chemical groups PCB and dioxin, both considered among the most toxic environmental contaminants. (The manufacture of PCBs was banned in the United States in 1976 because of concern over their effects on human health. They are still in use in some electrical equipment. Dioxins are byproducts of the manufacture and burning of products that contain chlorine.)
To put this number into context: There are more than 75,000 chemicals licensed for commercial use; more than 2,000 new synthetic chemicals are registered every year; the Environmental Protection Agency has tallied close to 10,000 chemical ingredients in cosmetics, food and consumer products. The 210 we were tested for are just a few of the industrial chemicals in our world. We can surmise that the actual number of manufactured chemicals in our bodies is far greater than our results show. Very few of these chemicals were in our environment, or our bodies, just 75 years ago.
In 1998, U.S. industries reported manufacturing 6.5 trillion pounds of 9, 000 different chemicals, and in 2000, major American companies — not even counting the smaller ones — dumped 7.1 billion pounds of 650 different industrial chemicals into our air and water.
How do I feel knowing I have all these chemicals in my body?
Although I’ve spent most of my adult life working on environment and public health issues and, in an intellectual sense, I expected the results, seeing the list of chemicals was shocking: Heavy metals like lead and methylmercury, organophosphate and organochlorine pesticides. Numerous furans — pollutant byproducts of industry.
Volatile and semi-volatile chemicals widely used in consumer products like gasoline, paints, glues and fire retardants.
I had secretly harbored the hope that I would find I didn’t have much of the bad stuff in me. After all, I have been privileged to live a “clean” life. I haven’t worked in factories or lived in heavily industrial areas; I’ve had access to good, organic food; I’m well educated and knowledgeable about the dangers of pesticides and have made a point of not keeping them in my house. (Though I’m an avid gardener, I haven’t used pesticides for years.)
What I discovered is that we are all in this chemical soup together. Chemicals in our environment don’t discriminate.
The findings gave new and pointed meaning to terms I’ve heard for years: toxic, persistent, bio-accumulative. One example is Mirex, an organochlorine pesticide. I became fixated on Mirex because I was the only one in our group to have a measurable level of it.
Mirex was banned for use in the United States in 1976 — 26 years ago, the year the second of my three daughters was born. Manufactured by the Allied Chemical Corp., it was until then used as an insecticide and fire retardant.
Here’s what the Environmental Working Group found out about Mirex: “As a class, organochlorine pesticides are toxic, persistent, bio-accumulative and lipophilic. This means that organochlorines build up and are stored in fatty tissues and fluids, such as breast milk, and can be passed on to fetuses and infants during pregnancy and lactation.” And, chillingly, “Extremely little is known about the effect of Mirex in humans.”
I’m 56, and my personal health history includes autoimmune illnesses, fibromyalgia and a rare cardiac syndrome known as Syndrome X. I’ve had three breast biopsies, one of which showed a finding of atypical cells that are usually considered a precursor to breast cancer.
Although it’s unknown to what extent my exposure may have contributed to the diseases I have that have been diagnosed, learning of these chemicals in my body has been deeply disturbing. I have many questions and concerns: How and where was I exposed to each of them? Have they contributed to my health problems? Had I known, could I have done anything more to avoid the exposures?
Most importantly, how much of what has bio-accumulated in me have I, however unwittingly, passed on to my daughters? Living in a world with ever-increasing numbers of and uses for chemicals, how will this affect them and their future children, my grandchildren?
And why do we know so little about these chemicals and the ubiquitous, low-dose exposures we are subjected to daily?
I know that we can seldom link specific health problems to specific exposures; the science is not yet available for that. But the prevalence of many illnesses and diseases — including cancers, birth and reproductive system defects, asthma, nervous system disorders such as autism and attention deficit disorder — is on the rise, and environmental factors may play a significant role in these increases. More than 50 of the chemicals I tested positive for are known to have harmful effects on the immune and cardiac systems.
Unfortunately, way too little is known about the vast majority of chemicals we have unleashed into our environment and bodies. There is no information available on the chemical uses or health effects of more than one- third of the chemicals for which the nine body burden study participants tested positive in a review of eight standard industry or government references used by the EPA. The chemical industry continues to claim that low- dose exposure to hundreds of chemicals simultaneously is safe. Yet, for most of the chemicals found in us, there are almost no studies done on such exposures, much less on related questions about how they may interact with each other in our bodies, how the timing of exposure may affect us, or how genetic vulnerability plays into the mix. It is not acceptable for any of us to be participants, without a choice, in this chemical soup about which we have so little knowledge.
The main reason so little is known is this: Companies are under no legal or regulatory obligation to understand how their products might harm human health, except in the case of certain ingredients in drugs or food or used as pesticides. That is also unacceptable. We must have more reliable scientific information about these chemicals.
We must reform the Toxic Substance Control Act (the nation’s chief regulatory statute for commercial chemicals) and incorporate into it the precautionary principle, which would require industries to show reasonable certainty that no harm will result from putting chemicals on the market. Companies are already required to do this before marketing some pesticides.
Where scientific evidence shows that industrial chemicals are likely to contribute to diseases, and their benefits don’t outweigh their harmful effects, exposures should be reduced or eliminated. We have to change our laws and regulatory practices relating to the chemicals pouring into our world.
It’s no less important to support independent research and public health facilities, like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which will pioneer the science that must lie behind the decisions we need to make.
I hope that the cumulative effect of many efforts like our body burden study will lighten the body burdens that my daughters — and all of our children — have to carry.
A complete report on our study, information about the chemicals we were tested for, and profiles of the participants are available at www.ewg.org/reports/bodyburden/.
The other participants in the “body-burden” study
Andrea Martin: A Corte Madera environment and public health activist who founded the Breast Cancer Fund in San Francisco. She died in August of brain cancer.
Bill Moyers: Broadcast journalist who shared results of his body burden tests in his Emmy award-winning PBS special on the chemical industry, “Trade Secrets: Bill Moyers Reports.”
Davis Baltz: A senior projects director for Bolinas-based Commonweal, a nonprofit environmental and health research organization.
Lucy Waletzky: A psychiatrist and board member of the National Audubon Society who serves on the board of the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Society.
Michael Lerner: Founder of Commonweal and a longtime environmental activist.
Sharyle Patton: Co-founder of the International Persistent Organic Pollutants Network and co-director of the Collaborative on Health and Environment, focusing on links between health and the environment.
Monique Harden: A New Orleans attorney with expertise in anti-pollution litigation.
Charlotte Brody: A registered nurse who founded the Health Care Without Harm Campaign to make health care more environmentally responsible.
KEY TO CONTAMINANTS
Alexandra Rome’s body was found to contain measurable levels of 86 out of the 210 chemicals tested in the “Body Burden” study. In most cases there is no official standard for what constitutes unsafe levels of these chemicals within the human body and scientists haven’t determined what levels of exposure cause disease. But several of these chemical compounds are listed by the official U. S. National Toxicology Program as “known” or “reasonably anticipated” human carcinogens. They fall into one of the following eight categories:
PCBs: PCBs were used for industrial insulation and lubrication until they were almost entirely banned in 1974. Based on animal studies, the government has concluded that several mixtures of PCBs are “reasonably anticipated” to cause cancer in humans.
Dioxin: The byproducts of PVC production, industrial bleaching and incineration, dioxin can cause cancer in humans and is toxic to developing endocrine systems.
Furans: Pollutant byproduct of plastics production, incineration and industrial leaching. Toxic to developing endocrine systems.
Organochlorine insecticides: DDT, chlordane and other pesticides. Largely banned in the United States, these chemicals can accumulate in the food chain and be ingested by humans.Some of them can cause cancer and reproductive effects.
Organophosphate insecticide metabolites: Byproduct of malathion and other insecticides, can be toxic to the nervous system. Indoor uses were recently banned. A common exposure is from food.
Phthalates: Plasticizers found in some cosmetic and personal care products and inks. The National Toxicology Program found these may cause birth defects of male reproductive organs.
Volatile and Semi-volatile organic chemicals: Gasoline, varnishes, glue and industrial solvents contain chemicals from this family, as does tobacco smoke. Some are poisonous to the nervous system. Benzene, a gasoline additive also present in tobacco smoke, is identified by the government as a cancercauser in humans.
Metals: Lead, found in old paint chips, can cause lowered IQ. Mercury, which may befound in swordfish, shark and canned albacore, can trigger developmental delays. Arsenic exposure from treated lumber and contaminated drinking water, is linked to behavioral disorders. Cadmium, found for example in pigments and bakeware, is classified by the government as a “known carcinogen.”
Alexandra Rome was co-director of the Sustainable Futures Group at Commonweal, a nonprofit health and environmental research institute, until 2000. She lives in Mill Valley.