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 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.
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 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 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.
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.”
Francesca Lyman is an environmental and travel journalist and author of “Inside the Dzanga-Sangha Rain Forest” (Workman, 1998). She recently finished a report on the health effects of the Sept. 11 attacks titled “Messages in the Dust,” which will be available online at