LYNN NEARY, host:
Fungus may be lurking inside L.A.'s palm trees, inhibiting their growth from the inside out, but how many people know what they're carrying around inside their own bodies?
Well last fall, writer David Duncan went on a journey that few have ever taken. He calls it a journey of chemical self-discovery. Fourteen vials of his own blood were tested for traces of more than 300 chemicals he might have absorbed into his body during his life.
These are chemicals found in everyday things; furniture, cars, shampoo and plastics. David Ewing Duncan has written about the experience in an Arcticle called The Pollution Within, for National Geographic magazine. And he joins us now from San Francisco.
Good morning, David. Good to have you with us.
Mr. DAVID EWING DUNCAN (Author, The Pollution Within): Good morning. Glad to be here.
NEARY: How did you go about this experiment? Walk us through that.
Mr. DUNCAN: Basically, I had my blood drawn, and I had 14 vials - I nearly passed out when they were pulling out all this blood. And they shipped up it up to a lab in Canada, one of the few in the world that does this sort of fine-tuned, very technical tracing of chemicals inside of a person. I was tested for 320 different chemicals, and this is everything from DDT to PCBs, to plasticizers and flame retardants, and all kinds of chemicals that are out there that we use in everyday products. And it turns out I had about, well a reading on about two-thirds of these chemicals that are actually inside of me.
NEARY: This really did take you on a kind of chemical tour of your life. One of the interesting memories, I guess, that it brought back to you, was a dump where you used to play when you were a kid.
Mr. DUNCAN: I did go back to where I grew up in eastern Kansas, on the bluffs of the Kansas River - and like a lot of boys, we played on the edge of this dump. You know, there were all kinds of crazy little things there that only, you know, ten or twelve year old boys can fully appreciate. It turns out, years later I go back, and it's now a major Superfund site. And it's not only a Superfund site, it was leaching chemicals back when I was a kid - and actually many years after I was a kid - into the Kansas River, just upstream of a water intake that provided water for about 45,000 families, including my own.
I also went to other spots that I've lived in, including the Hudson River Valley, with the PCBs, and some other places - ending up out here in San Francisco, where I live now.
NEARY: Is there any way of knowing that your exposure - for instance, to the chemicals in that dump as a child - that you can really trace back the chemicals in your body now to that dump?
DUNCAN: Well, it's hard to tell where these chemicals actually came from. They're everywhere. Every one of these chemicals I'm tested for, or at least most of them, have been found everywhere on the planet. You know, in the Arctic, in the ocean, these are tiny little amounts and most of these chemicals are measured in the parts per billion.
NEARY: What was the most worrisome finding for you?
DUNCAN: Well, I did have a somewhat startling finding. I am filled with flame retardants. And these are chemicals - I'm going to try to pronounce it here -polybrominated diphenyl ethers, PBDEs. And these are actually chemicals that are required by regulation in most countries to add to pretty much anything that can burn, everything from a couch to circuitry on a computer, or in a machine. And I have ten times the average level in those tested in America. I have 200 times the levels found in Europe.
And what I have is close to the highest levels measured in humans. If you feed lab animals high levels of these PBDEs, you get thyroid problems, you get potentially cancer, some reproductive problems. But who knows what this means, other than maybe, you know, if you light me up I won't burn.
NEARY: Does this change the way you think about your body? I mean, are you doing anything different as a result of this?
DUNCAN: I did have another test, where I tested myself for mercury levels. And I had, as it turned out, five parts per million when I did my initial screening. And mercury dissipates in your body after about 30 to 60 days, but we're constantly exposed to it. So what I did was I went out and I did what they call a fish gorge. I had swordfish for dinner and a nice halibut for breakfast, with a little eggs and garnish. And lo and behold, when I tested myself about 24 hours later, I had spiked up from five parts per million to twelve parts per million. And ten is considered a threshold where you start getting a little worried.
You can do something about that, which is just not eat that many big fish.
NEARY: But in the end, you went to your family doctor or your internist and he said, you're fine, there's nothing wrong with you?
DUNCAN: Well, I seem to be healthy. Again, it's unknown if something is happening to us with these small levels, you know, it's yet to be thoroughly detected. You know, there's a lot of work that needs to be done.
NEARY: All right, well thanks very much for talking with us, David.
DUNCAN: Well, thank you.
NEARY: Science writer David Ewing Duncan's piece, The Pollution Within, is in the October issue of National Geographic.
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STEVE INSKEEP, host:
You can get a preview of David Duncan's Arcticle at npr.org.
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