Chemical Soup

By Alexandra Rome

We all learned in high school chemistry that our bodies are just amalgams of chemicals. But what we're not taught, what few of us grasp, is that increasingly our bodies are sites for a vast chemical experiment, bombarded daily by industrial and agricultural toxins. I learned this first hand recently when I volunteered to be tested for 210 of these chemicals. In the summer of 2000, I was one of a group of nine participants from whom 13 vials of blood were drawn and a 24 hour urine sample collected, all to be shipped overnight to labs in Kansas and California for evaluation.
The Mount Sinai School of Medicine, the Environmental Working Group (EWG), a nonprofit research and education organization, and Commonweal, a nonprofit health and environmental research institute -- collaborators on the study -- wanted to discover what scientists call our "body burden." This term describes the chemicals accumulated in our bodies as a result of simply living in our world. Our industrialized society leaves its chemical imprint on us. Industrial, agricultural and waste management practices introduce chemicals that linger in food, air, water, and soil and enter our bodies through breathing, drinking, and eating. Chemicals in consumer products can contaminate us directly.
At about the same time we were being tested, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta was conducting the second in a series of body burden studies on 2,500 individuals. Unlike us, those participants remained anonymous and never learned which of the 116 chemicals they were tested for remained inside them. Our group wanted to put a human face to the numbers.
This is my test result: I have measurable levels of 86 out of the 210 chemicals, including 27 different compounds from the chemical groups PCB and dioxin, both considered among the most toxic of environmental contaminants. (The manufacture of PCBs was banned in the United States in 1976 because of concern for its effects on human health. Dioxins are byproducts of the manufacture and burning of products that contain chlorine.) To put this number into context: there are over 75,000 chemicals licensed for commercial use; over 2,000 new synthetic chemicals are registered every year; the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has tallied close to 10,000 chemical ingredients in cosmetics, food and consumer products. 210 is a very small number compared to the total number of industrial chemicals out there in our world.
In 1998, US industries reported manufacturing 6.5 trillion pounds of 9,000 different chemicals, and in 2000, major American companies -- not even counting the smaller ones -- dumped 7.1 billion pounds of 650 industrial chemicals into our air and water. Considering that out of these vast numbers we were tested for only 210, we can probably surmise that the actual number of manufactured chemicals in our bodies is far greater than our results show -- in the many hundreds, if not thousands. Very few of these chemicals were in our bodies or environment just 75 years ago.
How do I feel about knowing that I have all these chemicals in my body? Despite the fact that I've spent most of my adult life working on environment and public health issues, and in an intellectual sense I expected the results, seeing the lists of chemicals written out -- heavy metals like lead and methylmercury, organophosphate and organochlorine pesticides, numerous furans that are pollutant byproducts of industry, volatile and semivolatile chemicals that are widely used in consumer products like gasoline, paints, glues and fire retardants -- was just shocking. I secretly harbored the hope that I would find I didn't have much of the bad stuff in me. After all, I have been privileged to live a "clean" life: I haven't worked in factories or lived in heavily industrial areas; I've had access to good, organic food; I'm well educated and knowledgeable about the dangers of pesticides and have made a point of not keeping them in my house. (Though I'm an avid gardener, I haven't used them for years.) What I discovered is that we are all in this chemical soup together. While the levels of toxins in our bodies may differ depending on circumstances, environmental chemicals don't discriminate.
These findings gave new and pointed meaning to terms that I've heard for years: toxic, persistent, and bio-accumulative. One example is the chemical Mirex, an organochlorine pesticide. I became fixated on Mirex because I was the only one in our group to have a measurable level of it. Mirex was banned for use in the US in 1976 -- 26 years ago, the year the second of my three daughters was born. Manufactured by the Allied Chemical Corporation, it was until then used as an insecticide and fire retardant. I have no idea when or where I came in contact with it. Here's what the Environmental Working Group found out about Mirex: "As a class, organochlorine pesticides are toxic, persistent, bio-accumulative and lipophilic. This means that organochlorines build up and are stored in fatty tissues and fluids, such as breast milk, and can be passed on to fetuses and infants during pregnancy and lactation." And, chillingly, "Extremely little is known about the effect of Mirex in humans."
I'm fifty-five years old. My personal health history includes the following four diagnoses since 1986: SLE (known as lupus), autoimmune thyroid disease, fibromyalgia, and a rare cardiac syndrome known as Syndrome X. I've had three breast biopsies, one of which showed a finding of atypical cells that are usually considered a precursor to breast cancer.
Learning of these chemicals in my body has been deeply disturbing. I have many questions and concerns: How and where was I exposed to each of them? Have they contributed to the health problems I experience? Had I known, could I have done anything more to avoid the exposures? Most importantly to me, how much of what bio-accumulated in me have I, however unwittingly, passed on to my daughters? As they live in a world with ever increasing numbers of and uses for chemicals, how will this affect them and their future children, my grandchildren? And why is it that we know so little about these chemicals and the ongoing, ubiquitous, low-dose exposures we are all subjected to daily?
I am all too well aware that on an individual level we can seldom link specific health problems to specific exposures. The science is not yet available for that. However, we do know that the prevalence of many illnesses and diseases - - including cancers, birth and reproductive system defects, asthma, nervous system disorders such as autism and attention deficit disorder - - are on the rise and that environmental factors may play a very significant role in these increases. Over 50 of the chemicals I tested positive for are known to have harmful effects on the immune and cardiac systems.
Unfortunately, way too little is known about the vast majority of chemicals we have unleashed into our environment and bodies. There is no information available on the chemical uses or health effects of over one-third of the chemicals for which the nine body burden study participants tested positive in a review of eight standard industry or government references used by the EPA. The chemical industry continues to claim that low dose exposures to hundreds of chemicals simultaneously are safe. Yet, for most of the chemicals found in us, there are almost no studies done on such exposures, much less on related questions about how they may interact with each other in our bodies, how the timing of exposure may affect us, or how genetic vulnerability plays into the mix. It is simply not acceptable for any of us to be participants, through no choice of our own, in this chemical soup about which we have so little knowledge.
The main reason so little is known is this: companies are under no legal or regulatory obligation to understand how their products might harm human health, except in the case of certain chemicals that are ingredients in drugs or food or used as pesticides. That is also unacceptable. We must have more reliable scientific information about these chemicals. We must reform the Toxic Substance Control Act (the nation's chief regulatory statute for commercial chemicals) and incorporate into it the precautionary principle, which would require that industries show reasonable certainty no harm will result from putting chemicals on the market. There is precedent for such a reform -- companies are already required to do this before marketing pesticides. Where the weight of plausible scientific evidence shows that industrial chemicals are likely to contribute to diseases, and the benefits of their use don't outweigh the harmful effects, exposures should be reduced or eliminated. We have to change our laws and regulatory practices relating to the chemicals pouring into our world. It's no less important to support independent research and public health facilities, like the Centers for Disease Control, which will pioneer the science that must lie behind the decisions we need to make.
What drove me to participate in this project was the hope that the cumulative effect of many efforts like this study would lighten the body burdens my daughters -- and all of our children -- have to carry.
You can find a complete report on our study, information about the chemicals tested for, as well as profiles of the other eight participants and myself, at the Environmental Working Group website:
The Mount Sinai report is available: Thornton, J.W., McCally, M., and Houlihan, J., Biomonitoring of Industrial Pollutants: Health and Policy Implications of the Chemical Body Burden, Public Health Reports, 2002:117: 315-323.
The website for Commonweal is
Information on the CDC studies is available at:
Alexandra Rome was Co-Director of the Sustainable Futures Group at Commonweal, a nonprofit health and environmental research institute, until 2000. She remains active in local environmental issues in the San Francisco Bay Area and Montana.



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