You are what you eat … breathe … scrub … lather … spray

You are what you eat … breathe … scrub...

YOU ARE WHAT YOU EAT… BREATHE… SCRUB… LATHER… SPRAY

By Susan Allan, The Ottowa Citizen

Scientists testing humans for ‘pollution’ have discovered long lists of manmade toxins including DDT and PCBs

Davis Baltz is a toxic waste site, according to a 2003 investigation that unearthed 15 dioxins and furans, 41 PCBs, four organochlorine pesticides, 33 volatile and semi-volatile organic compounds, lead, mercury and phthalates. Problem is Davis Baltz is not a place, he is a person.

“As alarming as those figures were to me, the reality is that everyone in the world, no matter where they live, is going to have somewhat similar profiles,” says Mr. Baltz, an environmental researcher in Bolinas, California. “Everyone on Earth is exposed. There’s no place to hide.”

Mr. Baltz was one of nine participants in an Environmental Working Group study led by the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York. Thirteen vials of blood were drawn from each volunteer, who also provided urine samples throughout a 24-hour period. Doctors and researchers screened the samples and discovered in each, on average, 91 industrial compounds, pollutants and other contaminants, including PCBs, which have been banned in the United States since the 1970s. They also found phthalates, a plasticizer chemical used in many everyday products, including perfumes and nail polish. “Scientists have been studying pollutants in air, water and on land for decades,” the Washington-based research group explained.

“Now, they’re studying pollution in people.”

The EWG and other advocacy groups believe the findings from this and similar studies highlight the failure of current chemical regulations and reveal disturbing truths about the way our bodies metabolize manmade toxins. They argue that low-dose exposures to hundreds of chemicals — including those found in shampoos, lotions and perfumes — can have wide-ranging and serious health effects. The chemical industry argues that proof of exposure is not proof of harm.

In a speech to investors in October 2003, the president of the American Chemistry Council predicted that “professional health activists” and “other traditional detractors” would become increasingly vocal in their demands “to bring about compound substitution, product de-selection and additional and costly regulatory burdens.”

The trade group represents 135 leading manufacturers in the chemical industry, a $450-billion enterprise in the United States. Greg Lebedev, then president of the ACC, told a New York audience that phrases like “chemical trespass” were coined by activists with “very little, if any, knowledge” in order to inspire negative response. “These antagonists, of course, ignore the differences between acceptable risk and legitimate hazard, and turn away from common sense that tells us, for example, the chemical properties in penicillin can save your life, but if taken in excess can harm you … as most things done in excess.”

The chemical industry is a powerful opponent, Mr. Baltz observes.

“Sometimes, on my optimistic days, I think we’re actually doing quite a lot considering how outgunned we are. Our strength is in our argument: We’re saying that chemicals that are potentially harmful don’t belong in people.”

Across the Atlantic, Karl Wagner leads DetoX, a World Wildlife Fund campaign demanding European leaders take swift action to ban certain industrial chemicals. Last June, the environmental group enlisted politicians to their cause, drawing the blood of 14 government ministers from 13 countries of the European Union. Tests revealed 55 chemicals in the ministers’ blood — “a ubiquitous contamination by a cocktail of hazardous chemicals.” The chemical found in the highest concentration and the highest median concentration was diethylhexyl phthalate, a synthetic chemical that is used in a wide range of consumer products, including cosmetics and perfume.

The WWF, like Mr. Baltz, argues that it is possible to infer that everyone in the world is similarly contaminated and offers the investigation as proof that chemicals the industry insists are safe are, in fact, accumulating in human bodies. “The findings call into question the claims that chemicals are under ‘adequate control,’ a claim made despite the fact that the vast majority of chemicals have no publicly available safety data.”

Chemical manufacturers dismiss the “alarmist tone” of the campaign, and the producers of bromine flame retardants, in particular, condemn the WWF for “creating public anxiety.”

Mr. Wagner himself was tested and expressed shock when the Bad Blood report was released last October. “In my blood, there are at least 43 artificial, manmade chemicals. Chemicals used to make fire-resistant sofas, non-stick pans, grease-proof pizza boxes, baby bottles, the lining of tin cans and even pesticides banned decades ago,” he said. “I did not have a choice, I was not informed, there was no way I could have prevented this contamination.”

It’s a dirty secret that toxins are building up in people and in wildlife, says Mr. Wagner, or at least it was before the start of his campaign. “If scientists cannot tell me the effects of individual chemicals, what about the cocktail of chemicals streaming around my body?”

The question preoccupies Davis Baltz. At the Commonweal nonprofit health and research institute on the coast of the Pacific, Mr. Baltz is helping to establish a biomonitoring resource centre.

“The chemical industry will say biomonitoring is a useful tool but that it doesn’t prove anything — it doesn’t tell you how you’ve been exposed, that there’s no evidence of harm,” he said in an interview. “But what they will never tell you is that these chemicals don’t belong in our bodies and they’re getting there without our permission.”

Commonweal argues that “body burden” measurements — testing for chemical compounds in blood and urine or breast milk, for starters — demonstrate that North Americans must change how we manage risk.

“We assume chemicals are innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt,” says Mr. Baltz. “The chemical industry puts the onus on the public to prove harm.”

All of this is changing in the European Union where complex regulations have been proposed that would overhaul the chemical industry and force manufacturers to prove their products are safe. Companies that produce more than a tonne of a substance annually will have to register the chemical and disclose its properties, uses and hazards. Ultimately, chemicals found to be carcinogenic will be phased out over a 10-year period.

“If you don’t set certain objectives, you will never trigger the research or the political initiatives to make it work,” explains Robert Donkers, co-author of the EU draft legislation.

Beauty-care substances would be covered indirectly by REACH proposals, which apply to their chemical ingredients. Personal-care products have been regulated since 1976 by the European Cosmetics Directive, which is intended to safeguard the safety of makeup products sold in European markets.

It is no coincidence that the WWF DetoX campaign is in high gear as politicians in Europe debate REACH — Registration, Evaluation and Authorization of Chemicals. “We are making politicians very much aware that chemicals are a serious health problem and that they need to act,” Karl Wagner said in an interview from his home near Vienna.

While the debate in Brussels is being watched closely by the U.S. chemical industry, Mr. Donkers observes that those who wish to remain competitive have no choice but to adopt a precautionary approach to chemical safety. “I hope industry will be more proactive,” he said from his office in Washington, D.C. “If they want to do business in Europe, they have to adapt because we are now 450 million customers — that’s not Mickey Mouse.”

The U.S. State Department is openly lobbying against REACH, arguing that it is costly and unworkable. However, Mr. Donkers says there are a few states studying the proposal. “Washington state, the New England states and also California have a different view,” he notes. “They are pushing for an overhaul at the federal level. If that’s not possible, they’d certainly like to do it at the state level. But that is not for tomorrow, I’m afraid.”

In California, state senator Deborah Ortiz recently introduced Bill SB1168 in the legislature. The proposed law would create a statewide biomonitoring program to test Californians for chemical exposure. New Hampshire and Washington have also introduced similar bills on bioaccumulative toxins, pollutants that persist in the food chain. In cases such as mercury, the substances occur naturally. In others, like DDT and PCBs, the chemicals are manmade. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency links Persistant Bioaccumulative and Toxic pollutants (PBTs) to a wide range of health problems, including cancer.

“Most of these chemicals are not tested to determine whether or not they cause diseases in humans,” Senator Ortiz said in a statement about the 85,000 synthetic chemicals registered in the United States. “This bill will enable us to know just which toxic pollutants are in our bodies and move accordingly to improve everyone’s health and safety.”

It is the second time the Healthy Californians Biomonitoring Program has been introduced. In June 2004, the bill failed by one vote and was criticized in part for fuelling panic about exposure to low doses of chemicals. The American Chemistry Council opposes the bill as does the California Chamber of Commerce. Steve Milloy, a vocal critic associated with the Cato Institute, a libertarian think-tank in Washington, D.C., has argued in the media and on his website JunkScience.com that there is no basis for assuming chemicals play a role in the onset of chronic disease. “We know trace levels of many chemicals and other substances can be detected in the body,” he writes. “But so what? While all substances may be toxic, they’re only toxic when exposures to them are sufficiently high.”

Ms. Ortiz likens the debate to past discussions about lead. For most of the 20th century, scientists and public-health officials downplayed the health hazards of the heavy metal. But as science improved, the dangers became obvious and today no level of exposure is considered safe. Industry objected to a ban on leaded gasoline, but after it was outlawed, levels of the contaminant in blood went down.

“It may take years to get this bill through, but we decided let’s keep pushing,” says Sharyle Patton, who along with Davis Baltz worked behind the scenes on the bill at Commonweal. “We are used to the chemical industry saying, ‘We all have chemicals in our body and we’re all living longer.’ The problem, of course, is that there is an increase in brain tumors in children and an increasing risk of testicular cancer, there’s no doubt. Other diseases, it’s not so clear — but how clear does it have to be?”

Testing air, water and soil is well and good, says Ms. Patton, “but when you test a human being, it’s ultimate proof of exposure.”

Ms. Patton learned this lesson first-hand when her own results arrived from the EWG body burden study. “I just thought I’d have a few chemicals. I don’t live next door to a refinery. I don’t live next door to a highway. I don’t live in a big city. I grew up in the Rocky Mountains.” In fact, the environmentalist’s blood and urine revealed 105 contaminants, including 46 different compounds of PCBs and six furans. The tests also revealed phthalates.

“It speaks to the fact we’re facing global contamination,” Ms. Patton said from her office in California. “We’re all walking around with DDT, we’re all walking around with PCBs.”

And yet, she says, there is reason for optimism if governments can be convinced to ban or restrict certain toxins. “There’s a rich arena for productive action. Even though we have these chemicals in our bodies now, it’s really possible that within a generation we won’t. There’s reason for hope.”

Much as the WWF recruited politicians for bloodwork, Commonweal is collecting a cohort of California “luminaries” whose blood and urine will be screened for such chemicals as phthalates, polytetrafluoroethylene (Teflon) and flame retardants. “We are hopeful the tests will create a swell of interest at the same time this bill is going through the legislature,” Davis Baltz explains.

If and when governments start to generate exposure data, it seems a given that policy changes will follow. Sweden, for example, has been monitoring the breast milk of first-time mothers for more than three decades. Milk samples have been gathered annually from cohorts ranging in size from 20 to 116. Six years ago, studies found that milk was highly contaminated with fire retardants — PBDEs — and that levels were doubling every two to five years. The response was a ban on the bioaccumulative compound that is found in hundreds of everyday products. While PBDEs are being phased out in Europe, they are still used in Canada and the United States.

Since the ban in Sweden, Mr. Baltz notes, the corresponding curve of concentration in breast milk has gone down. “There is a clear relationship between banning a chemical and seeing the body burden go down.”

Breast-milk monitoring is not without controversy. Some women’s groups suggest that informing mothers that they are passing polybrominated flame retardants, dioxin and even DDT to their babies might discourage breastfeeding. Commonweal’s Sharyle Patton, who was worked extensively on the issue, insists that human milk is still the best choice for a baby. The information is obviously alarming, but she argues it is always better to know. Lactation proponents may object to the second point, Ms. Patton observes, but they share the same goal — “we want to protect babies” — and agree the answer is to stop pollution, not nursing mothers.

Although no one knows if environmental toxins are harming our children, in time biomonitoring may offer clues. Researchers in the United States are in the organizing stages of an ambitious project that will follow 100,000 children from birth to age 21. The National Children’s Study will examine many issues, including how low-dose exposures to synthetic chemicals affect the health of developing babies, growing children and maturing adolescents. Canadian researchers lobbied the federal government unsuccessfully to create a piggyback study that would follow some 10,000 children.

Also in the U.S., the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention runs a national biomonitoring program that every two years assesses the exposure of the general American population to environmental chemicals. The studies are dedicated to answering three questions:

  1. Are exposure levels increasing or decreasing over time?
  2. Are public-health efforts to reduce exposure working?
  3. Do certain groups have higher levels of exposure than others?

In the most recent report, released in January 2003, the CDC warned that just because an environmental toxin is found in someone’s blood or urine does not mean the chemical causes harm.

Dr. Daniel Krewski of the University of Ottawa agrees.

“It is important to know what chemicals are there, but it is even more important to know at what concentration,” says the head of the McLaughlin Centre for Population Health Risk. “You can detect a number of trace chemicals in body tissue, but that’s just an observation that there’s something there, it doesn’t really address the level of risk — if those contaminant levels are really low, the risk is going to be really low as well.”

Dr. Krewski leads a committee at the U.S. National Research Council that is studying how scientists can best use emerging science to assess the toxicity of environmental contaminants. Biomonitoring is one tool that will be explored by the scientists, who will produce two reports during the next three years.

At Statistics Canada, scientists are preparing the framework for a national survey of the general population that will collect lifestyle information and measure environmental exposures in approximately 5,000 randomly selected Canadians. Unlike the National Children’s Study or the CDC Reports, this will be a one-time survey to establish a national baseline of health measurements.

Dr. Mark Tremblay, who leads the Canadian Health Measures Survey, says ideally this would only be the beginning — especially since much of the cost of such research is incurred at the front end. Results of the survey are expected in 2008.

On the California coast, Commonweal is working to change the way people think. Chemical contamination is not just about smokestacks or toxic spills, they say, “it’s about exposures to complex mixtures of chemicals, even at low levels of exposure.”

Commonweal director Charlotte Brody has spent much of her career trying to change minds. In 1996, the former nurse created Health Care Without Harm, now an international coalition that encourages hospitals to consider the environment in all areas of health-care decisions.

Ms. Brody also works on the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, which has successfully lobbied U.S. cosmetic firms to remove dibutyl-phthalate from their products.

It’s all related, she says.

“We want to work for the government that most of us think should already be there. It’s not asking for Nirvana to think that government should be working with us to protect the rights of babies to be born toxin-free,” says Ms. Brody. “Corporations can make money — godspeed — but when they mess with my breast milk, they’ve gone too far.”

Like others at Commonweal, Ms. Brody participated in body-burden testing.

Because she was an expert on the issues, she anticipated the results — 85 contaminants, including 45 carcinogens. Yet despite everything she knew, she says, “it suddenly moved from the academic to the personal in a fundamental way.”

As outrageous as it sounds, Ms. Brody says, the bioaccumulation studies are an inspiration.

“There are no personal solutions,” she observes. “This is about a society protecting the health of the next generation, which is what community and government should really be about.

“It’s not out of reach to start moving in the right direction.”


Davis Baltz

Tested for 210 chemicals, 106 found. Among the contaminants in his blood: 15 dioxins and furans, 41 PCBs, four organochlorine pesticides, 33 volatile and semi-volatile organic compounds, lead, mercury, five phthalates.

‘As alarming as those figures were to me, the reality is everyone in the world, no matter where they live, is going to have somewhat similar profiles.’

Karl Wagner

Tested for 103 chemicals, 43 found: Tests found high values for DHEP (a phthalate, 1.5 times the average) and a high concentration of Deca PBDE (flame retardant, 45 times the average).

‘In my blood there are at least 43 artificial, manmade chemicals. Chemicals used to make fire-resistant sofas, non-stick pans, grease-proof pizza boxes, baby bottles, the lining of tin cans and even pesticides banned decades ago.’

Sharyle Patton

Tested for 210 chemicals, 105 found. Among the contaminants in her blood: 13 dioxins and furans, 46 PCBs, five organochlorine pesticides, 33 volatile and semi-volatile organic compounds, lead, mercury and four phthalates.

‘I don’t live next door to a refinery. I don’t live in a city. It speaks to the fact we’re facing global contamination. We’re all walking around with DDT, we’re all walking around with PCBs.’

Charlotte Brody

Tested for 210 chemicals, 85 found. Among the contaminants in her blood: 14 dioxins and furans, 28 PCBs, two organocholorine pesticides, 32 semi-volatile organic compounds, lead, mercury, three phthalates.

‘Corporations can make money — godspeed — but when they mess with my breast milk, they’ve gone too far.’

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