3 February 2003
Michael Lerner volunteered to give blood and urine samples to medical
researchers, he figured they'd only find a few chemicals in his
body. After all, Lerner, the president and founder of Commonweal,
a health and environmental research institute in Marin County, has
lived in Bolinas for 20 years, eaten a healthy diet and avoided
exposure to industrial chemicals.
was wrong. Researchers found his body polluted with 101 industrial
toxins and penetrated by elevated levels of arsenic and mercury.
call such contamination a person's "body burden."
was one of nine people -- five of whom live and work in the Bay
Areas -- who were tested for 210 chemicals commonly found in consumer
products and industrial pollution. Mt. Sinai School of Medicine
in New York, the Environmental Working Group of Oakland and Washington,
and Commonweal collaborated on this innovative study of the body
press conferences held in San Francisco and Washington, D.C., last
week, researchers revealed these shocking results: On average, each
person had 50 or more chemicals linked to cancer in humans and lab
animals, considered toxic to the brain and nervous system or known
to interfere with the hormone and reproductive systems. (The Environmental
Working Group's Web site www.ewg.org/reports/bodyburden/ features
biographies and toxic profiles for each person as well as the kind
of products that contain such chemicals.)
was astounded. "Being tested yourself brings the body burden
home in a very personal way." For years, he has lived with
a condition that causes a hand tremor. Now he suspects why. "Mercury
and arsenic both cause tremor, so I've stopped eating all fish that
have high mercury levels."
wife, Sharyle Patton -- co-director of the Collaborative on Health
and Environment -- also participated in the study. To her surprise,
the Bolinas resident had as many toxins as people who have lived
in cities. In fact, she had the highest levels of dioxins and PCBs
-- both highly toxic substances -- of anyone in the test group.
"What we learned," says Patton, "is that we all live
in the same chemical neighborhood."
who has devoted his life to promoting the health of people and the
planet, hopes that such bio-monitoring tests will become routine
and affordable. "Body burden tests," he says, "are
the thermometer that gives us our body's chemical fever. In a prudent
world, no household would be without a chemical thermometer in the
individual tests only provide information; they don't reduce our
contamination. "The truth is," Lerner says, "we are
unwilling participants in a huge chemical experiment, which would
never be permitted by the FDA if these chemicals came to us as drugs.
But because these chemicals enter us from industrial and agricultural
sources, they are not subject to testing that would ensure our safety."
report therefore calls for "the reform of the Toxics Substance
Control Act, under which chemical companies may put new compounds
on the market without any studies of their effect on people or the
Martin, founder and former executive director of the San Francisco's
Breast Cancer Fund, strongly supports the recommendation. Martin
is a breast cancer survivor who climbed Mount Fuji in 2000 with
500 breast cancer survivors and supporters. More recently, she underwent
surgery to remove a brain tumor unrelated to breast cancer.
who also gave samples to the Body Burden project, was stunned by
the results. "I was completely blown away," she told me.
"There were 95 toxins, 59 of which were carcinogens."
has never worked with or near chemicals. But she now wonders whether
her formative years may have turned her into a self-described "walking
toxic waste site."
she grew up in Memphis, she and her friends loved to get splashed
by the streams of insecticide sprayed by trucks that roamed the
neighborhood. Later, she indulged a passion for water skiing --
in lakes clouded by chemical pollutants.
did I get all these PCBs and dioxins?" she asks. "I'll
probably never know."
fact, no one is sure how industrial and synthetic chemical residues
-- even long-banned pesticides such as DDT -- end up in our bodies.
But scientists suspect that chemicals first pollute the air, soil,
food and water, then climb through the food chain and finally accumulate
in our blood, fat, mother's milk, semen and urine.
asked Martin if she regrets getting tested. "At first, I was
really angry. But I believe knowledge is power. We're starting to
learn that pollution isn't only in the air, soil and water; it's
also in us."
also wonders whether her chemical body burden has caused her cancers.
"We'll never know," she says, "because right now
chemical companies don't have to prove the safety of their products
and no government agency has ever studied the health risks that
can be caused by chemical toxins."
may change. Last week, the Centers for Disease Control also issued
its second report card on the body burden of chemicals carried by
Americans. Using data from 2,500 anonymous donors, the CDC provided
further evidence that chemical residues have polluted the bodies
of most of us.
no one yet knows what amount of trace chemicals are harmful for
human health, scientists and environmental health activists worry
about the cumulative assault on our health.