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“Chemical body burden” researchers and advocates raise questions about biomonitoring studies and hazards regulations

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WASHINGTON—The catchphrase "chemical body burden," or the presence of hazardous chemicals and their residues in humans, has started to be teased apart by researchers and environmental health advocates in recent years.

Good thing, because awareness of this issue is rising in the public sphere, and more Americans are obtaining laboratory results for the extent of certain chemicals lingering in their bodies, compounds that include pthalates (plasticizers), PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls), VOCs (volatile organic compounds such as those found in some paints), bisphenol A, lead, arsenic, mercury, asbestos and chlorpyrifos (an insecticide). Tested individuals remain uncertain about how to respond to this information, even as they see potentially linked poor negative health outcomes in their families. Some of these results are made available to subjects participating in household exposures studies who typically are eager to receive their personal results, compare them with national trends and learn how to mitigate impacts. 

Correlations among various pesticides, fertility and other health outcomes have been demonstrated in research on animals and sometimes humans too, although mechanisms are not always detailed or known. Are these relationships causal? And even if they aren’t, is there a legal requirement to disclose exposure risks to workers and residents? And are researchers liable when they discover potential risks encountered at home, and must they inform study subjects of them?

There’s a lot of hedging in the replies to these questions, especially when it comes to regulations relating to the presence of such chemicals in the home, not just the workplace.

For instance, there are "some duties to report some sorts of pollution under some circumstances" to people to whom you are selling or renting a home, according to research presented here Sunday by Shaun Goho of Harvard Law School, at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Part of the confusion stems from the fact that it is unclear how hazardous chemicals get into homes or the bodies of residents. Were these hazards endemic to the home or imported from an external source?

Hazardous waste laws, which go by acronyms such as RCRA, CERCLA and EPCRA, are designed to regulate the disposal and clean-up of hazardous synthetic chemicals, but they are written in ways that often make homes largely exempt from regulation.

The Toxic Substances Control Act (TOSCA), aimed at regulating products using PCBs and other chemicals, Goho said, "has not really lived up to what it was intended to do" and is a fairly ineffective law. PCBs are often found in floor polishes and paint, and some studies have found surprisingly high levels in homes. But illegal residential levels of PCBs are not an enforcement priority, he said, among regional and federal agencies.

In terms of disclosure in sales and renting, 37 U.S. states have statutory real estate transfer disclosure forms that require some disclosure of environmental hazards in the home, such as lead, asbestos, urea formaldehyde, pesticides, PCBs and VOCs.

But in other states, there is no clear duty to disclose on any hazardous substances other than lead. "You must answer questions truthfully if asked by the buyer, but how likely is it that buyer is going to ask seller, ‘Have you found pthalates in the home?’" Goho said.

Overall, these are "novel issues to consider," he said.

Sharyle Patton of Commonweal, a non-profit health and environmental research group in California, told stories of people responding to their own biomonitoring results. A total of 103 hazardous chemicals showed up in lab results conducted on her body.

"I won the PCB and dioxin contests," she said, talking about similar tests done on a group of colleagues, including the journalist Bill Moyers. "I grew up in little village high in Rockies in Colorado, away from industrial facilities, away from freeways. We raised our own cattle and vegetables. These chemicals in my body are calling cards, but they have no return address. I was outraged."

"You get a sense that web of life is also a web of contamination," she said, adding that you can’t just "shop your way out of the problem" by using only green cleaning and beauty products. Industrial practices must also change. It’s the additive impact of hazardous chemicals that leads to eventual illness, not any one exposure, Patton says.

Commonweal went on to oversee testing of some residents in California’s Central Valley who were concerned about pesticide drift. Subjects were advised of the risks surrounding making their results public and the uncertainties about how to respond to them. Still, some subjects went ahead and obtained results and linked them to experiences with infertility and miscarriages persuasively enough to force some changes in regional regulations surrounding pesticides spraying in schools, health centers and homes.

Image: Ohio Environmental Protection Agency


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  1. 1. upton3681 9:24 am 02/21/2011

    Terrific report. Industrial pollution in people is a top priority for the Obama EPA and its Administrator, Lisa P. Jackson, who has called on Congress to overhaul the failed Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976. But the landscape for reform on Capitol Hill is very tough, so the more attention it receives in the media the better. Environmental Working Group tested the umbilical cord blood of 20 babies born in the U.S. in recent years and found hundreds of toxic chemicals — including a number that were banned 30 years before these babies were born. People can learn more about this groundbreaking work here:

    Link to this
  2. 2. sidelight 12:03 pm 02/21/2011

    So why have we not curtailed industrial pollution since the ’70′s when I was in college and the idealist baby-boomers changed the world. We did change the world, but somewhare along the way enough of us were suckered in to supporting industry in polluting, or to beleiving the EPA was doing useful protecting. 911 and Katrina and the recent sub-prime meltdown shows the regulators/protectors are taking the money and not doing the job.

    Science that is not haltered to industry helps show the truth of the poisons we suffer.

    Until people informed of these matters rise up and change the world, we will continue to eat, drink and breathe dangerous pollution from industry.

    I do what I can, avoid industrial food, but our super-sophisticated U.S.A. environment is awash in pollutants.

    Link to this
  3. 3. feltonwem 12:53 pm 02/21/2011

    Civil Engineering schools still teach that "dilution is THE solution to pollution"…it should be criminal…even at the time I thought it should be spelled "delusion". Seriously. We are still training Engineers to pass the buck. We seem to be at war with our own environment.

    Link to this
  4. 4. frgough 3:22 pm 02/21/2011


    Maybe because they actually know a little bit of biology and understand that below the threshold of toxicity, any substance is harmless.

    Link to this
  5. 5. agasaya 11:16 pm 02/22/2011

    Greater clarity of reporting might be of great value in this area. We hedge on many aspects of this issue despite the fact that a great deal is known about how poisons affect various parts of the body. A poison is any substance that has a deleterious effect upon cells or organs either directly or by interfering with catalytic processes which mediate body functions. Responses to poisons are not just measured in fatalities.

    For instance, we know precisely how organophosphate pesticides work. They inhibit the production of an enzyme called acetylcholinesterase, which stops nerve impulses from jumping from one activated neuron to the next. That means exposure to such pesticides creates a greatly heighted state of nervous system activity and the resultant stresses upon the body leads to serious short and long term effects from cardiac and respiratory functions to brain damage. Dursban, the leading seller used throughout the country for decades, was banned for indoor uses by 2004 due to the high talley of exposure victims.

    We should not pretend that we do not know the effects of many substances which are incompatible with human biochemistry. Pesticides are farm chemicals, never invented for indoor use and therefore not tested for their effects in that highly specific environment.
    There is no reason not to hold industry responsible for diversifying their product lines when sensible connections (e.g. pesticide actions upon the central nervous system) are well known. Until consumers are educated through plain speaking about product ingredients and their effects, our dollars cannot speak for us.

    So journalists must.

    Barbara Rubin

    Link to this

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