Body Burden

Our Bodies, Our Landfills? 

You are what you ate, breathed, drank and more

FRANCESCA LYMAN / MSNBC 5feb03

Published Feb 6 2003 

 

Researchers say toxic chemicals make their way into our bodies every day through a range of products from cosmetics and food additives to pesticides and building materials.

Feb. 5 — Two recent studies cast dramatic light on the extent to which Americans are absorbing toxic chemicals in their bodies as part of everyday life. They present a striking picture of Americans riddled with low levels of chemicals, the vestiges of eating, drinking, breathing and touching the synthetic products of the industrial world. Given how common these chemicals are, can personal actions and better choices reduce one’s level of exposure in a toxic world?

charlotte brody

CHARLOTTE BRODY used to think so. For 20 years, she ate organic produce and followed all the usual recommendations to reduce chemical exposure, from using non-toxic household cleaning detergents to avoiding pesticides in her home and garden.

  • To see what chemicals were found in
    Charlotte Brody visit  BodyBurden

Joking that she washed her bathtub in vinegar so much that her family said it smelled like a salad, she adds, “I’m the one hand-picking individual weeds from my garden rather than using chemical sprays, and going that extra mile to get my organic milk in a glass bottle.”

With more than 70,000 chemicals in use in the United States and 2,000 new compounds being introduced every year, according to government figures, the average American is exposed to a cocktail of chemicals from various sources.

Brody used to think her efforts helped limit her exposure, but after volunteering to take part in a study measuring toxic chemicals in her body, she was shocked to find that she still had some 85 toxic chemicals in her blood and urine.

“I’m proof that a healthy lifestyle doesn’t shield you,” says Brody.

A CHEMICAL COCKTAIL

Brody and eight other volunteers were tested for the presence of 210 chemicals, commonly found in consumer products and industrial pollutants, by the Mt. Sinai School of Medicine in New York and two non profit groups, the Environmental Working Group and Commonweal.

The study claims to be “the most comprehensive” survey to date of the multitude of contaminants found in humans.

Tests on blood and urine detected an average of 91 industrial compounds, pollutants and other chemicals in the volunteers, with a total of 167 chemicals found across the entire group. The researchers chose subjects who did not work with chemicals in their jobs or live in industrial areas.

This small Mt. Sinai study and a much more comprehensive survey done by the Centers for Disease Control, also released in January, shed new understanding on the “body burden” of toxic chemicals we all carry inside. The results illustrate a side effect of modern life in which everything from carpets to cosmetics are bathed in toxins.

Biomonitoring our bodies

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have embraced "biomonitoring." The technology allows researchers to measure chemicals directly in blood and urine rather than having to rely on exposure estimates based on air, water or soil samples. Click on a category for recent biomonitoring breakthroughs.

CDC and Danish researchers found that the risk of breast cancer significantly increased with increasing levels of dieldrin, a pesticide, in women's blood. This result suggests that exposure to dieldrin and other "organochlorine" compounds may increase the risk of breast cancer.

Methyl parathion, a pesticide that should never be used indoors, has been found inside thousands of homes in at least seven states and led to the deaths of two children in Mississippi. In response, the CDC's Environmental Health Lab developed a method to measure methyl parathion in urine and did so in more than 15,000 people. The results helped identify who needed treatment and who needed to be moved out of their homes until the homes could be cleaned.

Trihalomethanes, chemicals that evaporate easily into the air, are thought to be linked to birth defects, bladder cancer, and colorectal cancer. Formed during the water sanitation process, they are often found in drinking water. The CDC's lab developed a way to measure trihalomethanes in blood, and it's being used in studies to find out how much enters people's bodies and whether the chemicals are causing illness.

The CDC's lab developed ways to measure cotinine -- a chemical formed by the breakdown of cigarette nicotine in the body -- in saliva, blood, and urine. These methods are being used to find out: how much secondhand smoke is getting into children, adolescents and adults; what levels of chemicals in tobacco smoke cause health problems; how well actions to protect people from secondhand smoke are working; and how well actions to help smokers stop smoking are working.

Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

RESULTS OF CDC STUDY

The CDC tests measured some 116 harmful chemicals, including lead, mercury and other heavy metals, chlorinated solvents, insecticides and other pesticides, PCBs, and plasticizing agents called phthalates, to name but a few.

The agency noted some public health successes, such as a decline in lead levels and in cotinine, the byproduct of tobacco smoke. But the researchers also announced some troubling findings, including: Children have twice the levels of certain pesticides in their blood as adults Children have higher levels of cotinine than adults Children have higher levels of certain chemicals used in soft plastic toys Adolescents have high levels of phthalates from personal care products Mexican-Americans have three times the levels of the banned pesticide DDT in their systems as other Americans

CAUSE FOR CONCERN?

Environmentalists interpreted the test results as greater evidence of the need for better regulation of industrial chemicals, while some in the chemical industry saw them as a sign that better regulations and detection methods are working well.

“Just because chemicals are found present in the body doesn’t mean there’s cause for concern, but only that an internal metabolic process has occurred,” said Jennifer Biancaniello, a spokesperson for the American Chemical Council, a trade association of chemical manufacturers. “CDC hasn’t come out and said there’s cause for health concern.”

While the CDC researchers did not comment on the possible health consequences, they did note that there are not enough studies available to adequately answer health questions regarding most of the chemicals found.

The report’s immediate value, CDC officials said, was to show for the first time the extent of Americans’ exposure to a range of ubiquitous chemicals.

With data on real-world “body burdens,” researchers can then monitor the same populations for health effects and begin to connect the dots between exposures and health outcomes, said Jim Pirkle, deputy director for Science at the CDC’s environmental health laboratory.

“The important thing is to look at this as a work in progress,” said Dr. David Fleming, the deputy director of the CDC. “We’re getting information we never had before. Better decisions can be made about how to protect people from environmental hazards.”

MAKING PERSONAL CHOICES

According to the Mt. Sinai study, chemicals make their way into our bodies through pollution, food additives, pesticide residues, a range of consumer products from paints and plastics, and a wide array of building materials.

Given the ubiquitous nature of these chemicals, can individual actions to reduce one’s exposure make a difference?

“People should stop smoking and stop exposing children to secondhand smoke,” said the CDC’s Pirkle, who also cited the need to avoid lead in paint and other products. “But there’s no way you can get rid of everything,” he adds.

Kris Thayer, a scientist with the Environmental Working Group and one of their study’s authors, points to new evidence showing that making simple dietary changes can reduce one’s exposure. She cites a recent study that found feeding children organic food reduced their exposures to pesticides by 6 to 9 times and another study that found cutting consumption of fish decreased blood levels of methyl mercury, a potent neurotoxin.

But many exposures to toxic chemicals in daily life are unavoidable, she says. She hopes body testing will spur governments and corporate leaders to reduce toxic emissions and even ban some products, as Sweden recently did when it found traces of fire retardant turning up in women’s breast milk.

Rather than be paralyzed by our toxic exposure, we ought to use the results of these studies to promote better policies and product lines, said Jeannie Rizzo, director of the Breast Cancer Fund.

“I would have liked CDC to call for more policy changes and make a more urgent call for research,” said Rizzo. “We’re walking around with these chemicals in us but with a process (for protecting us) that doesn’t have to be this slow.”

How do you know which substances to avoid? Toxic chemicals with particularly powerful effects include heavy metals, organic solvents and pesticides. Endocrine-disrupting chemicals such as dioxin, PCBs and phthalates -- substances that leach out of plastic packaging and wraps -- may also be harmful to your health. High levels of exposure linked to infertility in males and spontaneous abortion in women. New evidence suggests that low exposures also may have serious health effects. Since lead crosses into the fetal brain, there may be long-term effects on behavior and intelligence, for example. Major sources: old house paint; exterior paint on old steel structures such as bridges and railways; lead-soldered faucets.

Toxic to the developing brain, mercury is a known cause of birth defects and severe neurological effects. The most dangerous form is organic mercury: It is most easily absorbed and thus can cross the placenta and make its way into the developing fetus. Contaminated fish, particularly fish-eating fish like swordfish, tuna, shark and pike, are major food sources for humans. Mercury can also be inhaled, as it is a contaminant in coal and oil burning, chlorine manufacture and waste incineration.

Manganese, abundant in nature, is an essential mineral at low doses. But at high levels, it is toxic to the brain and lungs. It may also interfere with human hormones and damage male fertility and reproduction. At high levels, manganese also appears to disrupt fetal development; high levels have been implicated in stillbirth and club foot deformities.

In certain regions, manganese is added to gasoline as an anti-knock agent.

Because they evaporate in the air at room temperature, organic solvents can penetrate the skin and are easily inhaled. In fact, studies have found that taking a 10-minute shower in contaminated water exposes a person to more solvents than drinking two quarts of the same water.

Organic solvents also can cross the placenta, sometimes accumulating in high concentrations in the fetus. Solvents have been shown to increase the risk of spontaneous abortion as well as certain birth defects and childhood cancers.

Organic solvents are found in many settings, including electronic factories, dry cleaning and auto repair places, labs and paint shops. Solvents come out of cars' tail pipes in the form of gasoline exhaust and they remain on clothing in dry-cleaning bags.

Toxic by design, pesticides are intended to kill insects, weeds and fungus. Unfortunately, that means most are toxic to human nervous systems as well. Pesticides have been linked to cancer and reproductive, developmental, neurological and immune-system damage, depending on exposure levels.

The diets of infants and children are likely to contain pesticide residues. A 1994 government study found pesticide residues on 2 percent of vegetables and 1.5 percent of grains as well as in dairy products, eggs, fish and fruits.

Sources: Residues can be found in food, water, homes and on pets. Pesticides are most often used for outdoor lawn and garden care, but indoor air and dust also tend to have high concentrations.

Chemicals that interfere with the normal function of hormones in men, women and developing infants, endocrine disruptors include chemicals that act as estrogens, anti-estrogens, androgens such as testosterone and anti-androgens. Endocrine systems generally control body growth, organ development, metabolism and regular body processes such as kidney function, body temperature and calcium regulation; therefore endocrine disruptors also include chemicals that interfere with hormones such as thyroid, cortisol, insulin or growth regulators. Scientists are attempting to compile a list of such chemicals -- and it keeps growing. These chemicals are being tested for potential links to prostate, testicular and breast cancers, as well as lowered sperm counts and behavioral and learning abnormalities.

The pesticide DDT, described in Rachel Carson’s 1962 book, "Silent Spring," is now recognized by many scientists as a potent estrogenic chemical. Other synthetic chemicals that act as endocrine disruptors and to which humans are widely exposed include dioxin, a byproduct of various industrial process, primarily waste incineration; polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), now banned but still persistent in the environment and in the food chain; and phthalates, perhaps the most abundant man-made chemicals of all.

About one billion pounds of 25 different phthalate compounds are produced each year, and they tend to accumulate in fat tissue and are easily absorbed through the skin. Major sources: plastic wrap, soft plastics, including soft plastic toys, plastic medical equipment and some household products.


Select a toxin

How do you know which substances to avoid? Toxic chemicals with particularly powerful effects include heavy metals, organic solvents and pesticides. Endocrine-disrupting chemicals such as dioxin, PCBs and phthalates -- substances that leach out of plastic packaging and wraps -- may also be harmful to your health.

Lead

High levels of exposure linked to infertility in males and spontaneous abortion in women. New evidence suggests that low exposures also may have serious health effects. Since lead crosses into the fetal brain, there may be long-term effects on behavior and intelligence, for example.Major sources: old house paint; exterior paint on old steel structures such as bridges and railways; lead-soldered faucets.

Mercury

Toxic to the developing brain, mercury is a known cause of birth defects and severe neurological effects. The most dangerous form is organic mercury: It is most easily absorbed and thus can cross the placenta and make its way into the developing fetus. Contaminated fish, particularly fish-eating fish like swordfish, tuna, shark and pike, are major food sources for humans. Mercury can also be inhaled, as it is a contaminant in coal and oil burning, chlorine manufacture and waste incineration.

Manganese

Manganese, abundant in nature, is an essential mineral at low doses. But at high levels, it is toxic to the brain and lungs. It may also interfere with human hormones and damage male fertility and reproduction. At high levels, manganese also appears to disrupt fetal development; high levels have been implicated in stillbirth and club foot deformities. In certain regions, manganese is added to gasoline as an anti-knock agent.

Organic solvents

Because they evaporate in the air at room temperature, organic solvents can penetrate the skin and are easily inhaled. In fact, studies have found that taking a 10-minute shower in contaminated water exposes a person to more solvents than drinking two quarts of the same water. Organic solvents also can cross the placenta, sometimes accumulating in high concentrations in the fetus. Solvents have been shown to increase the risk of spontaneous abortion as well as certain birth defects and childhood cancers.

Organic solvents are found in many settings, including electronic factories, dry cleaning and auto repair places, labs and paint shops. Solvents come out of cars' tail pipes in the form of gasoline exhaust and they remain on clothing in dry-cleaning bags.

Pesticides

Toxic by design, pesticides are intended to kill insects, weeds and fungus. Unfortunately, that means most are toxic to human nervous systems as well. Pesticides have been linked to cancer and reproductive, developmental, neurological and immune-system damage, depending on exposure levels. The diets of infants and children are likely to contain pesticide residues. A 1994 government study found pesticide residues on 2 percent of vegetables and 1.5 percent of grains as well as in dairy products, eggs, fish and fruits.

Sources: Residues can be found in food, water, homes and on pets. Pesticides are most often used for outdoor lawn and garden care, but indoor air and dust also tend to have high concentrations.

Endocrine disruptors

Chemicals that interfere with the normal function of hormones in men, women and developing infants, endocrine disruptors include chemicals that act as estrogens, anti-estrogens, androgens such as testosterone and anti-androgens. Endocrine systems generally control body growth, organ development, metabolism and regular body processes such as kidney function, body temperature and calcium regulation; therefore endocrine disruptors also include chemicals that interfere with hormones such as thyroid, cortisol, insulin or growth regulators. Scientists are attempting to compile a list of such chemicals -- and it keeps growing. These chemicals are being tested for potential links to prostate, testicular and breast cancers, as well as lowered sperm counts and behavioral and learning abnormalities. The pesticide DDT, described in Rachel Carson’s 1962 book, "Silent Spring," is now recognized by many scientists as a potent estrogenic chemical. Other synthetic chemicals that act as endocrine disruptors and to which humans are widely exposed include dioxin, a byproduct of various industrial process, primarily waste incineration; polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), now banned but still persistent in the environment and in the food chain; and phthalates, perhaps the most abundant man-made chemicals of all.

About one billion pounds of 25 different phthalate compounds are produced each year, and they tend to accumulate in fat tissue and are easily absorbed through the skin. Major sources: plastic wrap, soft plastics, including soft plastic toys, plastic medical equipment and some household products.

Francesca Lyman is an environmental and travel journalist and author of “Inside the Dzanga-Sangha Rain Forest” (Workman, 1998).

Charlotte Brody, RN, is a founder and an Executive Director of the Health Care Without Harm Campaign — an international coalition of 390 organizations in 44 countries working to make health care more environmentally responsible and sustainable. A registered nurse and mother of two, Charlotte has served as the Organizing Director for the Center for Health, Environment Justice in Falls Church, Virginia, the Executive Director of a Planned Parenthood affiliate in North Carolina and the Coordinator of the Carolina Brown Lung Association, an occupational safety and health organization focused on cotton textile workers.