Scientists Measure Pollution in Humans
Sat Dec 27, 5:58 PM ET
By PAUL ELIAS, AP Biotechnology Writer
FRANCISCO - Davis Baltz shops for organic food and otherwise tries to live
as healthy as he can. So he was shocked to learn that the pollutants
collecting inside his body sounded much like a Superfund cleanup site:
pesticides, flame retardants and other nasty, man-made chemicals turned up
in a recent test.
told me is that no matter what I tried to do, the plumes of chemicals that
we are passing in and out of everyday give us exposure," said Baltz, who
works for Commonweal, an environmental group in Bolinas, Calif. Commonweal
and the Washington-based Environmental Working Group funded tests for Baltz and eight others at $5,000 apiece.
decades, researchers have sampled the air, land and sea to measure
pollution from power plants, factories and
automobiles. More recently,
they have expressed concern about mounting "e-waste" — discarded tech
contain flame retardants, lead and other toxins.
there's been trouble determining precisely how much pollution gets
absorbed by humans.
Now, in a
process called biomonitoring, scientists are sampling urine, blood and
mother's milk to catalogue the pollutants accumulating in humans. They
call the results "body burden."
tests are yielding scary lists of contaminants found in the body, their
links to disease are less clear. Nonetheless, proponents say such testing
will help researchers learn what role the environment plays in causing
disease and how to treat it.
chemicals such as PCB and DDT, both banned decades ago, remain in the
environment for years and
build up in the body over a lifetime.
It's not a
new phenomenon. Rachel Carson wrote about the poisons in her 1962 book
"Silent Spring," which is widely
credited for jump-starting the
now, researchers were left mostly to guess about exactly how much and how
many of the toxins lingered in our bodies.
Few of the
estimated 75,000 chemicals found in the United States have been tested for
their health effects, Baltz
and other biomonitoring proponents say. By
looking directly in the human body, they hope to catalogue the
environmental influences that may cause disease.
several studies have been completed:
March, California researchers reported that San Francisco-area women have
three to 10 times as much chemical
flame retardant in their breast tissue
as European or Japanese women.
University researchers reported at the same time that levels in Indiana
and California women and infants were 20 times higher than those in Sweden
and Norway, which recently banned flame retardant.
_ The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention earlier this year released data from 2,500 volunteers
tested for 116 pollutants and found such chemicals as mercury, uranium and cotinine, a chemical broken down from nicotine.
also found that black children have twice the level of cotinine than other
children, implying they were exposed to more secondhand smoke than their
peers of other races.
Mexican-American children were found to have three times the amount of a
chemical derived from DDT compared
with other children. Scientists suspect
that Mexico and Latin America countries may still be using the banned
month, state Sen. Deborah Ortiz plans to renew calls for California's
polluters to finance
testing of contaminants in mother's milk.
allow women to better make informed decision about their health," said
Ortiz, a Democrat. "And the
information will help researchers and public
fear that biomonitoring results could be misinterpreted and frighten new
mothers from breast feeding their babies.
clearly concerned about what effects the stories of biomonitoring will
have," said Barbara Brenner, executive
director of the San Francisco-based Breast Cancer Action nonprofit advocacy group. "Any rational
say to herself, `Should I be breast feeding?'"
political motives behind some of the tests.
"Everyone's exposed to substances and there's no evidence that the low
levels people are exposed to are
harming anybody," said Steven Milloy,
author of "Junk Science Judo: Self Defense Against Health Scares
Scams." "It's a waste of time and money that only serves to scare people."
noted that despite all the chemicals, the overall U.S. population is
living longer and healthier.
the tests conducted on Baltz and other Commonweal volunteers, including
public television journalist
Bill Moyers, are too expensive for most
people, proponents believe costs will go down as technology advances.
Moyers' body had traces of 84 toxins, including lead and a byproduct of
still a debate among advocates over which of the 75,000 chemicals to
specifically look for when biomonitoring.
And even when chemicals are
found, there's little an individual can do.
said the knowledge can at least help consumers make more informed choices
over what they eat.
don't have a whole lot of control over most of the environment, we can
take charge with the food we eat," he said. "There are few places where
you can exercise such power than controlling what we digest."