Study Explores Toxins in the Body A group of non-governmental organizations has been studying the level of toxic chemicals found in the average American's body — and they are releasing their results on Thursday.
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Study Explores Toxins in the Body

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Study Explores Toxins in the Body

Study Explores Toxins in the Body

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From the studios of NPR West, this is DAY TO DAY. I'm Madeleine Brand.


I'm Alex Chadwick.

Body burden. That is a term used to describe the level of sometimes toxic chemicals we carry in our flesh and blood. The term is used by public health advocates who raise alarms about the risks posed by plastics and pesticides and even hand creams. There's a new report today from some of these groups. And we'll begin the show today learning what it means and why some experts say interesting, but turn the alarm down.

BRAND: And one reason for that: the study group in this case is very small. Thirty-five people from seven states were tested for three kinds of toxic chemicals. They include substances called phthalates and a group of chemicals commonly known just by their initials, PBDEs. They are in everyday products - from toys, to textiles, to shower curtains, to lipsticks.

CHADWICK: A California-based nonprofit group on environment and health, Commonweal, lead this report. Sharyle Patton heads what's called the Commonweal Biomonitoring Project to measure chemical contamination in the human body.

Sharyle, welcome to the program.

Ms. SHARYLE PATTON (Commonweal Health and Environment Program): Thank you very much. I'm glad to be here.

CHADWICK: What are these chemicals that you've tested for, and what are they used for?

Ms. PATTON: We've tested for three sets of chemicals. One is phthalates. Phthalates is a chemical that's added to plastics to change the texture. And you'll find phthalates in soft plastics like shower curtains or metal tubings. It's also used in cosmetics and personal care products. It's a scent stabilizer. We tested for flame a retardant called PBDEs. These chemicals are used in couches and fabrics as a flame retardant. And we tested for Bisphenol A.

Bisphenol A is a substance used to harden plastic, and you'll find Bisphenol A in polycarbonate water bottles, those hard, clear plastic water bottles. And it's been used to line teeth to prevent cavities.

Now, phthalates are linked to a variety of health outcomes. For example, infertility, and women have higher levels of phthalates in the urine, when they give birth to baby boys give birth to baby boys with lower levels of testosterone. And so they'll probably have problems becoming daddies once they get older.

PBDEs are related to neurological problems, and Bisphenol A has been linked to - and these (unintelligible) animals - linked to a pre-cancerous conditions, breast and male genitalia, also linked to diabetes and linked to behavior problems.

CHADWICK: You tested 35 individuals, which again is not a very large study, but what did you find?

Ms. PATTON: Well, we found that all of those 35 individuals had levels of chemicals in their bodies, and we think that's seriously, seriously wrong, that these chemicals should have no business being in people's bodies. The chemicals we tested for are known in animal studies to cause serious outcomes. And so we feel these chemicals have no business being in the everyday products we use, because they are finding their way into human bodies.

CHADWICK: And what levels do you find? Is there an average level for these 35 people, or what could you say about that?

Ms. PATTON: Well, the levels we're finding are pretty much in line with the levels that the CDC is finding. So they're not extraordinarily high or extraordinarily low. We're dealing in various low levels of these chemicals, but we are dealing with levels of chemicals that are known to cause harm in animals.

CHADWICK: So you're saying that the level of chemicals in the human body, if you test a rat or a cow or something with equivalent levels, these chemicals will produce bodily changes?

Ms. PATTON: That's exactly what I'm saying, Alex. That the levels of these chemicals that can cause harm in animals is the levels we're finding in the humans we've been testing.

CHADWICK: So what's the relative danger of these chemicals? What are you saying?

Ms. PATTON: What we're saying is that if you know these chemicals are toxic, that they're causing harm to animals - for example, let's take Bisphenol A, for example. We know Bisphenol A, when it's applied to pregnant rats, makes those pregnant rats give birth to babies that have a higher risk of having breast cancer or cancer of the male genitalia. These babies had a higher chance of having diabetes. These babies will have different sexual behaviors than those babies that weren't exposed to Bisphenol A. Yet Bisphenol A is a chemical found in baby bottles.

Now, it's very hard to characterize risk, and let me tell you why. First of all, these chemicals are active at very low levels, but timing itself is also very important. Children are very vulnerable. A developing fetus is very vulnerable, and there are windows during times of critical development when a hit of a chemical can be much more damaging than in other times. You always have to take timing itself into consideration.

And even (unintelligible) very low levels, we all may be well carrying up to 600 chemical in our body. That amount adds up. At a certain point that glass of water, for example, spills over. We don't know how all these chemicals interact together. And that's problematic.

CHADWICK: Sharyle Patton is director of Health and Environment Programs for Commonweal. The report is "Is It in Us? Chemical Contamination in Our Bodies." Sharyle, thank you.

Ms. PATTON: Thank you very much, Alex.

BRAND: Elaine Nekritz volunteered for the study. She's a state representative from Illinois.

Welcome to the program.

State Representative ELAINE NEKRITZ (Democrat, Illinois): Thank you, Madeleine.

BRAND: Now, you were tested for phthalates and PBDEs?

State Rep. NEKRITZ: And Bisphenol A.

BRAND: And Bisphenol A. And what did they find in your body?

State Rep. NEKRITZ: What they found was that I was a pretty average American for the level of each of those that I have in my body, but that there is a significant presence of those in me. Americans do tend to have higher rates of these things than almost anybody else around the world.

BRAND: So when you got your results, what did you think?

State Rep. NEKRITZ: I wasn't very surprised because I sort of expected that they would find these things in me. I've been doing a lot of work here in Illinois on chemicals policy, so I expected that there would be these things in me. But it is sort of disturbing when you see it in black and white, staring you in the face and saying you've got these really unwanted chemicals in your body and you don't really know - we have no evidence to say what they're really doing to us.

BRAND: And how did they get there?

State Rep. NEKRITZ: I think they get through - get there through everyday consumer products. You know, I have couches in my home. I sit on them. I have computers and televisions. I use lip balm and all kinds of products. And they're in all these things, but they're not labeled, and we as consumers can't really make choices about whether or not we want to buy products with these chemicals or without them because there's no way of knowing.

BRAND: And I guess we as consumers also have a problem and that if they are ubiquitous, as you say, even if we know where they are, we can't really do much about it, can we? Because - I mean, we have to live our lives.

State Rep. NEKRITZ: That's right. And it - since there's no labeling and there's no way of really knowing - and there are some Web sites you could check out to get some information - but it's really hard. And as a person who, you know, we all lead busy lives - I do myself - and so I don't really worry too much about the products I buy. I just try to buy the best things I can that work for me and hope for the best. So it's really hard to get information about it and to make different choices.

BRAND: Well, someone listening to this - I mean, should the average listener be alarmed? Should they be worried now that every time they put lip balm on they're injecting themselves with harmful chemicals?

State Rep. NEKRITZ: Well, I think there's cause for alarm. But I think that the focus should be less on how do we as consumers make different choices versus how do we ask - get our policymakers and our government to better protect us on these things. There are things government can do. We haven't updated our chemicals policy at the national level in over 30 years. And we all know how science and technology advanced since the mid-1970s. So we as consumers, I think, can speak out to our government officials to say we'd like some investigation and we'd like some change.

BRAND: Well, you are a government official. You're a state representative in Illinois. What are you doing about it?

State Rep. NEKRITZ: Well, I've worked for the last three years on a piece of legislation to ban the flame retardants, the PBDEs, here in Illinois, and we're continuing to work on that. We face some - it's a pretty difficult uphill battle. Although Washington state and Maine have both recently been able to do that, and so we're hoping Illinois will also be one of the first states.

We're also going to be considering a broader piece of legislation this year to address these chemicals in a more comprehensive way because it's - with literally tens of thousands of chemicals out there in consumer products, it's really almost impossible to go after them one at a time.

BRAND: Elaine Nekritz, thank you for joining us.

State Rep. NEKRITZ: Thank you.

CHADWICK: We've looked for some help to put this study in perspective, so we're joined now by David Ropeik. He's a former journalist and the author of the book, "Risk: A Practical Guide for Deciding What's Really Safe and What's Really Dangerous in the World Around You."

David Ropeik, welcome to DAY TO DAY, and what do you conclude from this study?

Dr. DAVID ROPEIK (Harvard Center for Risk Analysis): I don't think any one study can give us conclusions. This one contributes to a growing body of evidence that we all carry around in us trace amounts of chemicals that were made by industry that we weren't born with. The problem is that when scientists try to actually figure out what that means for our health, what the risk is, they have a formula that basically is exposure times hazard.

So exposure means we're exposed to it, and how, and how much. And we have exposure. It's in our blood. The problem is it's times hazard. And the hazard is, what does it do to us, in what ways, at what point in our lives, at what doses. And as I understand it from former colleagues at the Harvard School of Public Health and the Department of Environmental Health, the evidence on what these low doses do to us is in some places building and in other areas sketchy or practically nonexistent.

CHADWICK: Well, it's this level of risk that's so difficult to ascertain. And when people listening this program hear that the studies come out and the author of the study says, look, an equivalent amount of these chemicals in laboratory animals do produce troubling results, what do you say to that?

Dr. ROPEIK: My understanding of the animal testing is that the evidence is not quite so unequivocal, that at these doses, even in animals, much less in the more complicated world in which we live, it's quite sketchy. Let me give you a quick example.

Bisphenol-A, which is in plastics like our plastic milk containers and so forth, if you have a mouse mom that's pregnant - she has like 12 or 13 pops in her womb - if you expose them to Bisphenol-A, there are changes in the masculinity of the males who were born, their fertility and so forth.

But it turns out that the same thing can happen without any BPA exposure if the male is simply next to two males or next two females in the womb. At these low doses it's really hard to control for every other little tiny factor and say for sure it's the chemical that's causing it. So it's just up in the air. It's not as unequivocal as some people say. But it's certainly a cause of concern and a call for more investigation, I would say.

CHADWICK: David, how many of these studies do you see in a year, and how do you figure out which ones matter to you?

Dr. ROPEIK: No one study, or even 10, or 100, can absolutely say that A causes B. So each study should be considered a brick in the wall of evidence. Now the question is, on each study how strong a brick? Well, as I understand it this was 35 people, that's a small group, over seven states; that leaves 43 out. You also have to account for what time period their blood and tissue was sampled, because our exposures go up and down depending on the season. But we should all just keep in mind that when any scientific study comes out on anything, it's only one piece of evidence, not the defining answer.

CHADWICK: David Ropeik is the author of "Risk: A Practical Guide for Deciding What's Really Safe and What's Really Dangerous." David Ropeik, thank you.

Dr. ROPEIK: Thank you, Alex.

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