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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Your Chemical Body Burden

Air Date: Week of

More and more people are demanding the right to know what chemicals are in their bodies. In California, a bill is being pushed that would set up the first statewide biomonitoring system to collect and analyze breast milk. But some fear testing might cause people to confuse chemical exposure with illness and cause undue alarm. Living on Earth's Ingrid Lobet reports.


CURWOOD: Welcome back to Living on Earth, I’m Steve Curwood.

In many cities and towns across the U.S. you can read the local newspaper to find out what’s in the air you breathe. And in many communities, the water company will tell you what’s flowing from your tap. It’s useful information but, these days, some people are demanding more. They want to find out what synthetic chemicals are in their blood, urine and breast milk.

Scientists at the National Centers for Disease Control have started keeping data on what substances are found in the tissues of the average American. But some people say averages aren’t enough -- that there’s an individual right to know, as well. In California, groups are pushing a bill that would set up the first statewide collection and analysis of human fluids.

Living on Earth’s Ingrid Lobet reports on the growing trend in biomonitoring.

LOBET: As Sharyle Patton sat in a tiny clinic room watching her blood fill yet another vial, she mused that after years as an activist lobbying against persistent chemicals, she would finally learn her own chemical fingerprint -- what had built up in her body over a lifetime. When the results were emailed to her, she compared notes with several friends.

PATTON: Well, we all had funny different reactions to it. Some of us looked at our scores and felt good because our numbers were less than other people in the group [laughs]. I mean, there was that kind of reaction. And I looked at my PCB levels and realized they were really high. And I thought, my goodness, I’ve just about won the PCB contest. And that my dioxin levels are as high as some folks that live in Louisiana, in Cancer Alley.

LOBET: The levels were a surprise for Patton because she’s chosen to live amid the wild green of Bolinas, a famously remote community on the coast north of San Francisco.

PATTON: I grew up in Colorado, in a high mountain town, far away from factories and industry and incinerators, right, growing our own cattle, our own vegetables. So, the fact that I had these high levels said a couple of things. First of all, it’s really hard to figure out the pathway of exposure by looking at your body burden levels. You just really don’t know. You can’t tell. There’s no little marker on that chemical that says it was manufactured by this company, or this is where you got it. There’s no way I can send a bill to anyone for using my body as a toxic waste site.

LOBET: Patton’s body, it turned out, contained 105 of the 210 metals and synthetic chemicals researchers tested for. Safe levels for many haven’t been set. Her test results are consistent with other studies in the United States and Europe that chart the intrusion of the Industrial Age on the human body. Certain pesticides, for example, and PCBs used in plastics and insulators, find their way into living things and settle in fat. Some are passed to babies in utero.

Interest in body burden testing, or “biomonitoring”, has spiked since the late 1990s when scientists discovered that a type of chemical flame retardants – called PBDEs – had rapidly been building up in animals and humans.

As reported previously on Living on Earth, those flame retardants – used in foam mattresses, drapes and furniture – have now been found just about everywhere researchers have looked for them: in whales, in seabird eggs, in seals, and in breast milk, and nowhere higher than the United States. Speaking last year on this program, California State Toxicologist Tom McDonald explained why these fire suppressants are a concern for developing babies.

MCDONALD: There's three primary concerns that we have with respect to health effects, and those include neuro-developmental changes, meaning learning and memory deficits in children, also thyroid hormone disruption, as well as possibly cancer. The concern basically comes from animal studies that have all shown that either in rats and mice, when you give PBDEs to them, either in utero or early after birth, you get permanent changes in behavior and learning and memory.

HOOPER: [Giving tour of lab] These are two half -million dollar machines, high resolution mass spectrometer and gas chromatography.

LOBET: At the same lab where researchers found the flame retardants in seals and American breast milk, another researcher is taking the issue one step further. Environmental biochemist Kim Hooper is asking a question you don’t often hear from American scientists – whether the current way of regulating chemicals is sufficiently protective of fetal and infant health.

HOOPER: For the last 25 years we’ve been following this paradigm of we need to show a chemical disease-human disease connection. And it hasn’t worked because we’re not really regulating that many more chemicals than we were 25 years ago. So, we need some kind of new paradigm -- and one new paradigm would be, let’s look at body burdens, chemical body burdens.

LOBET: After activists learned of the research on PBDEs, they helped get two widely used retardants banned in California. The manufacturer then volunteered to stop making them, but the activists want more. Donne Brownsey is a lobbyist in Sacramento for the Breast Cancer Fund. She hopes a broad program for body burden testing might one day reveal why one in eight women in the United States develops breast cancer.

BROWNSEY: We believe breast cancer is a public health crisis. We believe we can no longer just ask women to be dutiful about doing monthly exams. We have to start looking at environmental causation.

LOBET: And Brownsey believes the increased interest in biomonitoring indicates a shift in public attitude.

BROWNSEY: We think that, finally, some of these environmental issues have rightfully taken their place as environmental health issues.


LOBET: The emerging movement in America to test human beings for chemicals has found its center in the office of California State Senator Deborah Ortiz. She’s authored a bill that would create the first statewide human monitoring program in the country.

ORTIZ: There are other countries that have actually done this – Sweden, Germany, as well – that have been doing this over time, and measuring body burdens. So someone suggests that we’re really behind the curve in California.

LOBET: If her bill becomes law, scientists would choose three distinct communities for initial testing. Senator Ortiz, who chairs the Senate Health Committee, sees biomonitoring as a powerful political tool because it could reveal geographic differences in exposure.

ORTIZ: So that we can, in fact, measure women who live in East Los Angeles who live near an incinerator, or women who live in an area in the Central Valley where there is a lot arsenic in the water, as well as women who live in relatively non-heavily populated, non-industrial areas. I’d like to get us to the point where we have so much information that we can’t turn a blind eye, that we can’t turn our back to the huge, huge problems and the risks that we are placing on women throughout California. And maybe that data will get us there.

LOBET: Ortiz’s emphasis on women points to one sensitive aspect of the California bill: it intends to find out what’s in people’s bodies by testing breast milk. Breast milk contains more fat and so more of the fat-loving chemicals than blood. And you don’t need a needle to extract it. But advocates of the bill, like Donne Brownsey, say there’s a political reason for choosing breast milk, too.

BROWNSEY: We believe that if breast milk talks, people will listen.


LOBET: Little Nicholas Howard clamps his mouth onto his mother’s breast. But then he notices a microphone intruding on his nursing nirvana. And there’s another distraction: his buddy Antonio.


LOBET: Some worry that using breast milk as the test fluid might dissuade some women from breastfeeding. I ran that concern past nursing moms Jane Donofrio and Carolyn Howard.

DONOFRIO: I would give a sample immediately. I don’t know, what do you think?

HOWARD: I would be interested in giving a sample, first of all, just to see what was in my actual breast milk because that would give me more information. So I wouldn’t have reservations about going ahead and giving a sample.

DONOFRIO: Absolutely. I mean that’s why I think we eat the way we eat. When you know you’re giving it to your baby, it’s like, okay, I’ll get the organic peppers -- even if they’re more expensive ‘cause it’s worth it. And breast milk, like in relation to formula, I think, okay, there’s negative things in it, but maybe that’s where we can address our society on a whole with toxins in our world. You know, it’s more of a societal huge issue as to we have these things in our bodies, and why certain things are contaminated.


LOBET: Few people have contemplated both the contamination and the health benefits of breast milk as much as biologist Sandra Steingraber of Ithaca College. Steingraber has been calling for a national dialogue on contaminants in breast milk. I asked her to read from a letter she wrote for the Ribbon newsletter from Cornell University.

STEINGRABER: “Breastfed infants have fewer respiratory infections, diarrhea, middle-ear infections, and die less often from Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. Breastfed infants grow into children who suffer less than their bottle-fed counterparts from juvenile diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, obesity, dental malocclusions, and some leukemias. They respond more vigorously to vaccinations. They have better hearing and visual acuity. They develop balance and gross motor coordination more quickly.”

“It's also true that breast milk commonly violates Food and Drug Administration action levels for poisonous substances in food. Were it regulated like infant formula, the breast milk of many U.S. mothers would not be able to legally sold on supermarket shelves.”

LOBET: Steingraber is very careful to send a pro-breastfeeding message. She always made sure she was photographed breast-feeding her baby, Elijah.

STEINGRABER: The people who are advocating it in the public health community, the lactation community, the midwifery community, pediatricians and obstetricians -- they’re very touchy about any negative comment about breastfeeding and breast milk. And I feel that way myself.

On the other hand, I don’t think public health is ever served by keeping secrets, and the idea that nursing women should be protected against knowledge about what’s in their milk to me is profoundly condescending. Certainly, as a nursing mother myself, I certainly want to know what’s in my milk – in the same way I want to know about infant car seat recalls.

LOBET: But while advocates of biomonitoring see it as a right-to-know issue, others see California’s efforts as lacking focus and even irresponsible. The American Chemistry Council in a letter says that it’s wrong to test breast milk and then somehow see the results as an indicator of community health. The council, which represents chemical manufacturers and users, says people mustn’t confuse chemical exposure with harm. And some scientists share that concern.


KRIEGER: To many people, knowing that they’re exposed spells disease. Exposure isn’t a disease. Exposure is contact and absorption of a chemical.

LOBET: At the University of California at Riverside, toxicologist Robert Krieger and his associates analyze pesticides in human urine. Krieger supports the federal biomonitoring studies carried out by the Centers for Disease Control. But he believes the kind of biomonitoring where individuals get their own results back could cause unnecessary alarm.

KRIEGER: It’s possible to measure much, much less than the amounts that have any biological significance in terms of health. And given the poor general information that people have about chemicals and their bodies, I would think that a program such as that might carry more liabilities than benefits.

DINOFF [IN THE HUM OF THE LAB]: If I can give you an example here of a compound that I found while doing an analysis…

LOBET: Researcher Travis Dinoff points to a screen showing a wave form of one chemical in a urine sample from a farm worker.

DINOFF: This turns out to be oxybenzone which is a sunscreen. And if someone got a result back that said they had been exposed to oxybenzone, they might say, “oh God, I’ve been exposed to this chemical.” But it’s actually something that they put on their skin on purpose, and those compounds are going to be absorbed and excreted somehow out of the body.

LOBET: Professor Krieger is suspicious that many people who want widespread biomonitoring really just want a back door to more chemical regulation.

KRIEGER: The numbers game is very treacherous. The normal strategy is to find the low level of something, and associate risk with it. And then regulate that material at extremely low levels as though you are removing a risk. If the risk was nil or zero when you started, no matter how much you reduce it, you haven’t done anything. The public has not gained anything.

LOBET: Kreiger’s concerned the side effects of that could be wasted money and an unwarranted fear of chemicals. To see if other researchers share this worry, I turned to Dana Barr who has worked on the biomonitoring program at the Centers for Disease Control and heads the pesticide lab there. I asked her if she has reservations about testing as a tool in the hands of individuals.

BARR: I do. Because when you get all these data, a lot of them aren’t that easy to interpret right now on an individual basis. There are some that do have a clinical outcome associated with them – for instance, lead or mercury exposure – and so getting tested for those would make real sense because then you could reduce the exposure; there’s some sort of intervention that could occur. If you get tested for many of these other chemicals, we really don’t know if there are health outcomes associated with it. So, the data are largely uninterpretable on an individual level.

LOBET: But Dana Barr says she welcomes testing in city and state-run programs, like ones being planned for New York City, New England, the Rocky Mountain west, and California.

BARR: Oh, I think it’s an outstanding idea. And I think it is very important to get at this geographic information because we do know that geography and whether you live close to an agricultural region or whether you live close to an inner city – that that can affect what exposures you actually get.

The bill to create the nation’s first statewide biomonitoring program in California has passed the state senate and is in the state assembly. Backers are no longer asking chemical manufacturers to cover the cost of testing after the Schwarzenegger administration made it clear that was a non-starter. But whether the testing materializes this year or much later, its backers have raised intriguing questions about the right and desire to know. For Living on Earth, I’m Ingrid Lobet in Los Angeles.

[MUSIC: “Union of Body and Soul” GOVINDA (Earthtone) 2001]

CURWOOD: You can hear our program any time on our website. The address is Livingonearth.org. That’s Living on Earth dot o-r-g. You can reach us at comments at loe.org. Once again, loe dot o-r-g. Our postal address is 20 Holland Street, Somerville, Massachusetts, 02144. And you can call our listener line at 800-218-9988. That’s 800-218-99-88. CDs, tapes and transcripts are $15.



Environmental Working Group “Mother’s Milk”

Sandra Steingraber’s website

Breast Cancer Fund

Biomonitoring Legislative Proposal [PDF]

- Chemical Body Burden


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