What do the Centers for Disease Control know about body burden?
A: The U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC)
recently expanded their long-running annual body burden survey
of U.S. citizens from two chemicals (lead and cotinine from
passive tobacco smoke) to 27 classes of chemicals and heavy
metals. CDC reported the results of this survey in 2001: the
levels of several toxic chemicals and metals were much higher
than expected. The CDC found that levels of lead in blood continue
to fall, although mercury, another heavy metal that is a potent
neurotoxin for fetuses, infants and children, were high.
High mercury levels in women of childbearing age were of particular
concern because mercury, like lead, crosses the placenta during
pregnancy and can affect the brain development of the fetus. After
birth, babies and toddlers remain more susceptible to mercury
and lead because their brains and nervous systems are still
developing. For more information on the health effects of mercury
and lead, visit the
Washington Toxics Coalition website.
Phthalates were also found at much higher concentrations than
expected in women of childbearing age. Phthalates are
found in many beauty products, such as skin lotion, shampoo
and nail polish, and are added to plastics to make them more
pliable, such as infant feeding bottles, soft plastic toys for
children and pets and some medical devices. They can be absorbed
through the skin, inhaled as fumes, ingested when children bite
or suck on toys, or directly administered during medical care.
Phthalates have been shown to cause organ damage and severe
reproductive and developmental problems in animal studies.
The high phthalate levels found in people were enough of a concern
that CDC has prioritized phthalates for further investigation.
See Chemical Case Studies for
more information on phthalates.
The CDC also looked for and found a number of widely used organophosphate
pesticides in its study. Organophosphates pass through the body
relatively quickly, so this means that the people studied were
recently exposed to these pesticides. Organophosphate pesticides
are used mostly as insecticides, both in agriculture and in
household products. Short-term exposure can have a number of
serious health effects including cancer and endocrine disruption
can download the entire
CDC report or view of summary
of the report . The CDC plans to update this report and
expand the list of chemicals it looks for annually.
Are there other resources to learn more about the studies that
have been done?
The Natural Resources Defense Council has compiled dozens of
studies on its website addressing questions about chemicals
in breast milk. These studies show the results of breast
milk testing which has been done for years in different parts
of the world. In some cases, such as in Sweden, breast milk
has been systematically tested for so many years that the impact
of public policies (such as banning DDT) can be seen in the
Studies of chemicals in the human body and how they affect our
health continue to be conducted and released in countries around
the world. One of the best sources for tracking new body burden
studies is the "Our
Stolen Future" website , which is operated by
the authors of Our Stolen Future, Dr. John Peterson Myers,
Dr. Theo Colburn and Dianne
the spring of 2000, the Center for Health and Environmental
Justice collected dozens of studies from around the world documenting
industrial chemicals and pesticides in blood, adipose tissue
and breast milk. Pesticide Action Network has compiled these
studies into a database that is searchable by chemical or country,
so you can find a list of all studies that have been conducted
in Denmark, or a list of countries in which studies have been
conducted on DDT body burdens. While this database
is not comprehensive, it provides a glimpse of the types of
studies that have been conducted for many years around the world.
It will be available on-line soon at www.panna.org
Where can I learn more about "persistent" chemicals
that pass on to the next generation?
A: Some chemicals are called "persistent"
because they last for a long time - in some cases decades -
in the environment. Persistent organic pollutants or "POPs"
also build up in the food chain, can travel around the world
in global air and water currents, and are linked to serious
health problems in humans and other species. Many organizations
around the world are working to eliminate this class of POP
chemicals. The international community recently recognized
that the POP chemicals did not respect national borders, and
an international treaty, the Stockholm Convention, was developed.
The Convention calls for global elimination of an initial list
of 12 POP chemicals, with more to be added once the treaty takes
effect. For more information about the Stockholm Convention
and the many groups working to eliminate POPs, visit the International
POPs Elimination Network website.
Dr. Sandra Steingraber's recent book, Having Faith: An Ecologist's
Journey to Motherhood provides a more personal perspective
on the issue. Dr. Steingraber chronicles her pregnancy
month by month, at each stage examining the potential effects
of environmental contaminants on the growing fetus, including
persistent chemicals that she carries in her body. She also
describes the birth and breastfeeding of her daughter Faith
- presenting both the wonder of the process and how those wonders
are being threatened and diminished by pollutants. Dr.
Steingraber's website has excerpts from the book, information
about chemicals and extensive links to organizations and information
Q: Where can I learn more about chemicals that pass through
our bodies quickly?
Some chemicals break down relatively quickly in the body, so
the fact that they have been found in the body's blood and urine
means that the people tested were recently exposed to these
chemicals. Chemicals that pass quickly through our bodies
can still have damaging long-term effects. In fact, the body's
process of eliminating foreign compounds often makes them more
reactive, and these reactive molecules can damage delicate proteins
When a fetus is exposed to chemicals at particular stages of
development, there are often serious, irreversible effects.
You can learn more about the health effects of pesticides at
and about some of the links between chemical exposure and developmental
effects at the "Our
Stolen Future" web site and in the reports Generations
at Risk and In
Where can I learn about chemicals in my neighborhood?
A: While it would be impossible to find out
exactly which chemicals you are exposed to in your house and
neighborhood, there are some "right-to-know" resources
that provide basic information on industrial
chemical releases and pesticide
applications in your state or neighborhood.
It is important to note that these resources do not capture
the chemicals you are exposed to through the everyday use of
many household products, pesticide residues on food, industrial
by-products, and persistent pollutants that are pervasive in
is a gateway to practical and accurate information for parents
on how to prevent their children from being exposed to hazards
in their homes.
Ted and others. In Harm's Way: Toxic Threats to Child
Development (Greater Boston Physicians for Social Responsibility)
Gina and Ted Schettler Generations at Risk: Reproductive
Health and the Environment (MIT Press) July 1999. http://www.igc.org/psr/
Sandra Having Faith: An Ecologist's Journey to Motherhood
(Perseus Publishing, Cambridge, Massachusetts) 2001.
Secrets home page - http://www.pbs.org/tradesecrets/problem/bodyburden.html
William and Micheal Braungart. Cradle to Cradle/Remaking
the Way We Make Things.
(North Point Press) 2002.
Joe, Michael McCally, and Jeff Howard, "Body burdens
of industrial chemicals in the general population."
In Life Support: The Environment and Human Health,
ed. Michael McCally (MIT Press) 2002, 163-200.
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