The Chemical Body Burden

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The Chemical Body Burden for Future Generations

Most estimates suggest there are more than 80,000 man-made chemicals let loose in the environment, with the majority of their effects on either people animals or the ecosystem unknown, as their effects have never been studied. Their effects on our bodily systems as single chemicals have only been looked at for a very small number of these chemicals and as regards to their effects when mixed with other chemicals, this area of study is virtually untouched. Sometimes when chemicals are combined their effects are greatly amplified, this effect is due to their synergy or synergistic effect.

In Unhealthy Betrayal, I reviewed a number of studies that look at this chemical pollution of our bodies and refer to it as the chemical body burden. In one study in 2009 the CDC released a report that undertook to monitor chemical pollutants in the blood and urine of the US population. It assessed exposure to 212 chemicals from data collected between 1999 and 2004. They found that exposure to some commonly used industrial chemicals was widespread. Here is a sample of what they found:

  • Polybrominated diphenyl ethers, used as fire retardants, were found to accumulate in fat tissue and were found in nearly all participants.
  • Bisphenol A, a component of polycarbonates and epoxy resins, was found in more than ninety percent of people tested.
  • Several perfluorinated chemicals were found—one perfluorooctanoic acid is commonly used in the manufacture of a polymer that is found in non-stick coatings in cookware. Most participants had measurable levels of this environmental contaminant.
  • Acrylamide formed when carbohydrates such as corn or potato (as in French fries) are cooked at high temperatures, and its metabolite glycidamide. The US National Toxicology Program and the International Agency for Research on Cancer consider acrylamide to be a “probable human carcinogen,”
  • Seven forms of arsenic were found in most people.
  • The report also showed that all participants had detectable levels of perchlorate in their urine. This chemical is used in the manufacture of fireworks, flares, explosives and rocket propellants. It is known that it can affect thyroid function.
  • A high percentage of participants exhibited detectable levels of methyl tert-butyl ether (MTBE), a gasoline additive.

These studies should provoke action. Many of the chemicals that have been released have been found to persist in the environment (we call them persistent organic pollutants). A study by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in 1986 looking at chemicals in our food (The Total Diet Survey) found worrying levels of DDT and its breakdown product DDE. It was found in every sample of chili con carne, all beef, raisins and spinach. It was found in 93% of American processed cheese, chicken, turkey, hot dogs, hamburger, bologna and collard greens. It was also found in 87% of samples of lamb chops, salami and butter. This was especially worrying as it had been banned in the USA since 1972, due to its extremely toxic nature. They made the assumption that a significant part of this contamination must be due to importation from abroad.

Another study—this time by the EPA that had been monitoring human exposure to toxic substances annually from 1970 through its National Human Adipose Tissue Survey, which collected human adipose tissue from cadavers and other sources. They looked for the presence of 54 environmental toxins—and their results astounded everybody. Five of the chemicals, OCDD (a dioxin) and four solvents: xylene, ethylphenol, styrene and 1,4-dichlorobenzene were found in every sample that they studied. Another nine chemicals were found in 91-98 percent of samples, and included benzene, chlorobenzene, ethylbenzene, toluene, one furan and three dioxins. DDE, the breakdown product for DDT was also found and so were PCBs (in 83 percent of samples).

This provoked a lot of concern and induced other organisations to look into the body burden of our toxic load resulting from environmental contamination. The Environmental Working Group, for example, undertook a small study led by Mount Sinai School of Medicine, studying people who were not working with chemicals in industry to see what levels of contaminants they were effected by, they found 167 chemicals. Of these 76 cause cancer in humans or animals, 94 are considered toxic to the brain and nervous system, and 79 cause birth defects or abnormal development. None of the participants lived near an industrial facility.

The Environmental Working Group undertook another study that they published in 2005, looking into chemical contamination of new-born babies’ blood. They found an average of 200 industrial chemicals and pollutants in umbilical cord blood from 10 babies born in August and September of 2004 in U.S. hospitals. Tests revealed a total of 287 chemicals in the group.

The chemicals they found ranged from organochloride pesticides (DDT and dieldrin, for example), chemicals from consumer products (brominated fire retardants and PCBs, for example), and chemical pollutants from waste incineration and fossil fuel combustion (such as polychlorinated and polybrominated dioxins and furans, polychlorinated napthalenes and mercury). They made the following observations:

Of the 287 chemicals we detected in umbilical cord blood, we know that 180 cause cancer in humans or animals, 217 are toxic to the brain and nervous system, and 208 cause birth defects or abnormal development in animal tests. The dangers of pre- or post-natal exposure to this complex mixture of carcinogens, developmental toxins and neurotoxins have never been studied.

I have reported on a number of studies on the chemical body burden in Unhealthy Betrayal. The World Wildlife Fund has undertaken a number of these studies and revealed further unsettling information.

Phthalates were detected in 29 maternal and 24 cord blood samples; known to be toxic to reproduction. Musk ambrette, the chemical which had been banned for use in cosmetics in the EU since 1995, was still found in 15 maternal samples and 12 cord samples. Nonylphenol ethoxylates, one of the alkylphenol compounds that used to be extensively used as an industrial cleaning agent that has also been banned in the EU, was found in 12 of the 17 cord samples. The authors of the report state this is of particular concern since it has been banned. The antibacterial agent triclosan was found in 50 percent of the samples. DDT, the notorious pesticide had been banned in Norway and Sweden in 1970, banned in the US and Germany in 1972, and much later in the UK, 1984. Yet it was still found in virtually all samples. The organochlorine hexachlorobenzene, also subject of a global ban, was detected. Perfluorinated compounds such as PFOS and PFOA (used to make non-stick pans and water repelling agents) were present in all but one blood sample. PFOS was detected in all cord samples, and PFOA in approximately 50%. The authors come to the following conclusion:

The research concludes that hazardous chemicals are common contaminants in both maternal and umbilical cord blood, indicating that these chemicals can pass from the mother to the baby across the placenta. How then can we better protect our children from exposure to such potentially harmful chemicals? The only answer is for governments to put in place mechanisms that will drive industry to replace those substances with safer alternatives

Levels  of dioxin found in breast milk were so high that they would be banned under European law, due to the fact that these levels far exceed permitted levels of exposure for adults—and this is the exposure level we are exposing our most vulnerable infants to.

This information is not intended to put mothers off the idea of breast-feeding their child—far from it, we believe that it still absolutely the best way to nourish a child. No, rather we wish to inform, so as to provoke debate and hopefully garner action to change this situation.

As to why we have arrived at this situation is beyond the scope of this article but is further elaborated on in Unhealthy Betrayal.

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