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Many People Live In A Chemical Stew, Study Reveals

Scores of Pollutants Linked To Consumer, Industrial Products Found In Nine Typical Americans

Jan 31, 2003 | The Oakland Tribune

Turns out you truly are what you eat and breathe, drink, read, clean with, sit upon and wear. Ask Sharyle Patton.

Patton lives in Bolinas, eats organic and grew up on a ranch in Colorado where her family raised its own cattle and vegetables. But when she underwent $5,000 worth of tests to look for traces of consumer products and industrial chemicals in her blood, researchers found 105 unpleasant compounds.

She's not alone.

Nine Americans tested for 210 chemicals had an average of 91 compounds, pesticides and chemicals from everyday products in their blood and urine, according to a study released Thursday by the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York, the Environmental Working Group in Oakland and Bolinas-based Commonweal.

The chemicals accumulate in fat and body organs, are passed in breast milk, are known to cause cancer, contribute to birth defects, disrupt hormones and attack the nervous system. They come from car waxes, window cleaners, dish detergent, even the ink off this newspaper.

Five of the test subjects live and work in Berkeley or Marin County. None works with chemicals or lives in a particularly hazardous area. All were shocked to find such a chemical stain in their bodies and that nobody knows what health risks that posed.

"Does my body have DDT?" asked Patton, co-director of Commonweal's health and environment collaborative. "Yes it does. Is DDT related to miscarriages? Yes it is. Have I had miscarriages? Yes I have.

"Is it related?"

She can't say, she said. "All I know is I have no children."

The results came one day before the U.S. Centers for Disease Control releases its second survey of toxic contaminants, this one sampling 10,000 Americans.

The CDC study is expected to offer aggregated and anonymous confirmation of the Mount Sinai study's up-close-and-personal results: that simply living in modern society exposes humans to countless chemicals the "body burden," as participants called it.

"We know way too little about the vast number of chemicals that are in our bodies and in our environment," said Lexi Rome, a Mill Valley mother of three who found 86 contaminants in her body.

"The main reason I participated was for my daughters and other sons and daughters in the hope that their body burden will become lighter over time."

On average in each subject, Mount Sinai researchers found 55 chemicals linked to cancer in humans, 62 chemicals toxic to the brain and nervous system, 58 chemicals that interfere with the hormone system and 53 chemicals toxic to the immune system.

What is worse, participants said, is the sense of powerlessness to control the problem.

They already lead healthy lifestyles. DDT and other pesticides and PCBs in their blood have been banned for decades. Yet the chemicals are there.

"Although eating organic is good, it doesn't protect us," said Michael Lerner, president of Commonweal and a participant who found 101 chemicals in his body. "It doesn't protect our children in any dramatic way."

The findings prompted calls by activists and participants for better oversight of the chemical industry.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency reviews approximately 1,500 applications for new chemicals a year or 30,902 since 1979, when the Toxic Substances Control Act went into effect, said John Katz, the agency's pollution prevention coordinator for the region including California.

The EPA analyzes the chemical's structure and property, compares these to other known chemicals and, nine times out of 10, approves the compound as is, usually within 30 days.

Since 1979 the agency has seen 1,500 applications withdrawn due to an EPA suggestion, sent back 300 for further testing and slapped restrictions on several others, Katz said.

Ken Moss, the EPA's chemical control program adviser, agreed there's a need for more knowledge of what happens as these chemicals accumulate in the environment. "But we're not there yet," he said. "And it takes a lot of time, especially when we get some 1,500 chemicals a year."

The bottom line, he added, "is that for every convenience we have, it comes at a cost of a chemical that we may not know completely what's going to happen."

Indeed, scientists have no sense of the cost to human health from low-level exposure to these compounds like the amounts found in the nine participants or what happens when families of chemicals and pesticides are combined.

"We know from other studies that the higher levels (of exposure to chemicals) have health consequences," said Dr. Mark Miller, the director of the pediatric environmental health specialty unit at the University of California, San Francisco.

"What we don't know, very accurately, are the health consequences of exposure to very low levels," he said.

If history is any lesson, however, there is reason to believe additional research could reveal adverse health effects at levels now considered reasonable, he said.

For instance, 50 or so years ago federal regulators concluded humans could tolerate a relatively high level of lead exposure. Now scientists have concluded no level of exposure to lead is safe.

Bill Walker, Environmental Working Group's West Coast vice president, hopes regulators will draw similar conclusions with countless other compounds as more people become aware of the chemical burden in their bodies.

"Fifty to 60 years from now," he said, "we'll look back and ask how could we have ever thought it was safe to expose humans to these chemicals?"

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