Sunday, February 20, 2011

Chemical body burden: Are you toxic?

As the Britney song goes, "Don't you know that you're toxic?" Given that the belt I purchased on sale recently contained lead, these lyrics could be prophetic. I just might be toxic! Of course, the toxic love Britney sings about isn't to be taken lightly. Thankfully, we usually have the option to walk away from a toxic relationship. I wish the same could be said about the toxins in our environment.

Toxins in our environment-

How did we get here? Warning labels attached to accessories? You would think that the past experiences of public safety concerns due to chemical risks would have brought about a change in practice. For example, toys, jewelry, accessories, clothing, furniture, crafts, foodware and office supplies have been recalled because they were found to contain dangerous levels of heavy metals, usually lead and/or cadmium. Evidently, if we are warned about something containing a toxic substance, that somehow makes it OK to be sold. 

I know, "caveat emptor" and all that. Given that you're reading this it's probably safe to say that you're concerned about your health and all that influences it. So, when we choose our purchases we try to consider their impact on us and our environment. I could simply choose to buy a different belt.  One that doesn't contain lead. But how would I know which belt doesn't contain a toxic substance given that this warning label isn't required by every state government? How are we to ascertain whether something we are purchasing contains a toxic substance known to cause harm to our health and well being?

Toxins in our bodies: biomonitoring and body burden-

An even bigger question for me is how many of these toxic substances are we exposed to in our environment, and what are the cumulative health risks, if any? In the bigger scheme of health hazards, wearing a belt that may expose me to a low dose of  lead might seem relatively benign. However, when you combine that particular exposure with the multitude of other toxins we encounter daily, the health risks increase and we end up with something scientists call the body burden (1).

According to the Environmental Working Group (EWG), body burden is the total amount of of toxic chemicals that have built up over time in our bodies (1). "Scientists estimate that everyone alive today carries within her or his body at least 700 contaminants, most of which have not been well studied" (3). To my horror I learned that the presence of toxic chemicals is found even in fetuses (2)(3). Evidently, pregnant mothers unintentionally pass toxins on to their babies through the placenta. According to the EWG, "358 industrial chemicals, pesticides and pollutants [were found] in the cord blood of American infants" (6). One expert calls this the state of being born "pre-polluted" (4).

The knowledge of body burden is available because scientists are now better able to measure and track the levels of chemicals present in us through blood, urine, breast milk and hair specimens. This process is called biomonitoring. According to Commonweal Breast Cancer Fund, biomonitoring is an important process for monitoring public health because it indicates "trends of exposure, identifies highly exposed communities and helps in setting priorities for legislative and regulatory action" (10). You can find one overview of some of the chemicals currently being biomonitored here, as well as the CDC's 4th Report on Human Exposure to Environmental Chemicals here. Interestingly, biomonitoring is also being used to watch wildlife that inhabit chemically contaminated environments like toxic waste dump sites. Scientists find that biomonitoring these animals serves as a "front line indicator of pollutant levels and potential health impacts" (7). You can read more about this here at the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences.

Chemical regulation - Innocent until proven guilty-

When it comes to the chemical industry and our government's regulation of it, it appears their thinking is that chemicals are innocent until proven guilty. Historically speaking, it hasn't been until recent times that chemicals and their link to ill health effects have come under closer scrutiny. Back in the 1970's, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) began to regulate a limited number of chemicals, mostly pesticides, under the Toxic Substance Control Act (TSCA). In 1992, the TSCA was amended to include a Lead Exposure Reduction Provision.

Toxins and health effects-

The health problems resulting from lead exposure are documented and well-known, with children being the most adversely effected. It took years, but health advocates pushed for tighter regulation of lead. As a result unleaded gas, paint and plumbing components are now the norm (5). However, as is evidenced by the warning label attached to my belt, lead is still finding its way into our lives. The lead example highlights what is broken with the current laws: 1) poor control of the import of goods made in countries that still allow the use of toxic substances and 2) current regulations are outdated.

The TSCA was enacted before the current scientific findings that show even small levels of chemical exposure, which were once considered harmless, actually do cause detrimental health effects. In addition, there are now hundreds of new chemicals that have been created since the TSCA went into effect. These chemicals aren't being regulated. Also, the present regulation of chemicals tends to focus on the effect that just one chemical has on our health and not the effects of total body burden. Given the past negative history of, for example, lead, one would expect that the government would choose to err on the side of caution and at least restrict the use of newer chemicals until more is known about their effects on us. Sadly, this just isn't the case. This wait and see attitude is like playing a game of chemical roulette. 

Since this post is focusing on what we can do to limit our body burden, I won't go into a lot of detail about the ill health effects of toxins.  Suffice to say, current scientific evidence clearly shows increased risk for birth defects, as in genetic mutations, reproductive issues, and cancers (3). These risks, combined with the fact that babies are being born pre-polluted is compelling enough to take at least a little protective action.

How are we exposed? The biggest chemical culprits-

One of the biggest areas of our exposure comes from the consumer products we use. Government health authorities have identified the following chemicals as being "human carcinogens, serious neurotoxins or well-established hormone disrupters" (4), so it would seem prudent to try to limit our exposure to these (click on each if you want to learn more):
Several other areas of exposure include the air we breathe, the water we drink and the foods we eat. If you've just thrown your hands up in surrender, I share your frustration. However, the situation isn't hopeless.  We may not be able to avoid toxins, but there are things we can do to reduce our level of exposure. Checking to see what your body burden currently is might seem like a logical place to begin.  However, at this point experts are saying that individual biomonitoring is difficult to use for specifically assessing how relevant your individual results are to your actual risk for disease. So, where do we begin?

What we can do to limit our body burden:

  1. Let our government officials know that:
    • we find the current regulation of chemicals unacceptable.  Public outcry was exactly what prompted the chemical DDT to be banned. The EWG states that "Proper environmental regulation does work to reduce people's chemical burdens" (8). The Toxic Substances Control Act must be amended to at least require that the complete health and safety data on chemicals be known and disclosed to the public. No more innocent until proven guilty. Dangerous chemicals should be phased out and safer alternatives assured.
    • we desire community biomonitoring programs. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has been conducting biomonitoring for the past 30 years and several states are also biomonitoring for a small number of specific toxins only. One example is the program in Pennsylvania that tracks blood lead levels (9). You can read more about this at the CDC site here. However, more wide-spread biomonitoring of the chemicals experts have linked to increased risk for disease needs to be conducted in communities.
  2. Support "watch dog" organizations that advocate for us by keeping an eye on the largely unregulated chemical industry, like the Environmental Working GroupThe Natural Resources Defense Council, or the Children's Environmental Health Network.
  3.  Filter your water.
  4. Buy organic foods if possible, especially if you have young children. If this isn't an affordable option, try to focus on buying organic products that make the most difference.  EWG has a handy list of the most pesticide laden produce here and it's also available as a free Iphone app.
  5. Know what's in your personal care products and household cleaners and what chemicals to avoid. The list above gives you a good head start. Try to use natural products. You can read more about the natural personal care products at Skin Deep here and the household cleaning products here.
  6. Know what kind of plastics are safer and avoid plastic baby bottles, water bottles, toys, teethers and  pacifiers and canned foods whose cans are lined with BPA. Avoid microwaving foods in plastic containers.
  7. Throw away aluminum cookware and pans with non-stick coated surface. 
  8. Avoid fabrics treated with flame retardants, wrinkle relaxers or stain repellents and limit use of fabric softeners and air fresheners.
  9. Use low VOC (volatile organic compounds) paints whenever possible.
  10. Try not to use chemical pesticides on your lawn, pets or in your home and take your shoes off before you walk in the house.
The evidence linking toxins to deteriorating health is mounting and seems compelling. The good news is that by becoming educated about the situation we can take steps to decrease our chemical body burden. While making these changes in our lifestyle are important to reducing our chemical exposure, it is critical that we also push for improved government and industry standards regulating chemicals.

As for the lead belt that prompted this post, it went back to the store, along with a letter to the company letting them know how I feel about their sale of a lead laced accessory! I like a bargain, but with this purchase I got more than I bargained for!    

(1) Environmental Working Group (EWG) 
(2) Biomonitoring
(3) Chemical Body Burden$$xa$$busc15.wais&start=9720137&SIZE=4204&TYPE=TEXT
Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)
(4) EWG
(5) EWG  
(6) EWG
(7) National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences - 
(8) EWG
(9) Centers for Disease Control (CDC) -


  1. Wow. you would never know the level of care we need to take to minimize these toxins. Thanks for this!

  2. This is really a useful information, I have not really known about these things before. I think that we need to be careful with stuffs around us, nowadays. Thanks for sharing.

  3. Hi...

    Nice post and really you have done a great effort every disease must have some cure in our bed distance that's why take care.
    Thanks for sharing