March 15, 2003

by Jill Kramer

Sharyle Patton thought her body would be less polluted than most.  She grew up in a tiny town in the mountains of Colorado where the family grew most of their own vegetables and raised their own cows and chickens.  It was back in the late ‘40s, just before a sea of new chemicals flooded the marketplace.  For the last 20 years, she’s lived in Bolinas and eaten mostly organic food.  So, when she and eight other volunteers recently had their blood and urine tested for the presence of 210 toxic chemicals, she was horrified to learn that she was contaminated with half of them.

“My first reaction was sheer outrage,” she says.  “I never gave permission for my body to be used as a toxic waste site.  If somebody came up and hugged me without my permission, I could sue them for assault and battery.  If somebody threw paint on my car, I would have legal recourse.  But here I have 105 toxic chemicals in my body and where do I take the rental bill?”

Facetiousness aside, there’s nowhere to take the medical bills, either.  The industrial chemicals found in Patton and the other test subjects in this study have been linked with cancer, nervous system disorders and damage to the reproductive and immune systems.   The fewest number of chemicals in any of the individuals was 77, the greatest was 106.  In all, 167 were found.  Some of these pollutants have been banned for decades, yet they persist not only in human bodies but in the soil, where they can continue to contaminate us.   Most of the 210 toxins in the study, however, are still in common use.  And they’re just the tip of the iceberg.  There are more than 75,000 chemicals licensed for commercial use in the U.S.  They’re in your shampoo, your food, your carpets, your cleaning products, your children’s toys.  You inhale them, you eat them, you absorb them through your skin. The chemical industry asserts that they pose no harm to human health.  But most of them have never been tested.  More than 63,000 chemicals were granted blanket approval in 1976, and safety requirements for chemicals manufactured since then are loosely enforced.  That’s something the backers of this study hope to change.

The study, released in January, was conducted by the Environmental Working Group in Washington, D.C., the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York, and Commonweal, the Bolinas-based health and environmental research institute.  “We wanted to raise awareness, to teach people that we are exposed to so many industrial chemicals, and that many of them are not tested,” says EWG research vice president Jane Houlihan.  “Hopefully, studies like these will lead to long-term regulatory shifts that will give us better protection.”  The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has already taken notice.  A much larger study by the Centers for Disease Control, also issued in January, measured levels of 116 chemical contaminants in 2,500 randomly selected people across the country.  The CDC’s findings contributed to last week’s warning from EPA that environmental chemicals increase children’s risk of cancer, cognitive damage and respiratory problems.

The EWG study, while too small to be statistically significant, is the first to put a human face on environmental pollution.  Patton and her husband, Commonweal founder Michael Lerner, who also was tested, solicited the participation of the other volunteers.  Davis Baltz of Berkeley coordinates the California Health Care Without Harm ini tiative, an international project co-founded by Commonweal.  Lexi Rome, who splits her time between Mill Valley and Montana, is a longtime volunteer for environmental issues.  She used to work with Patton, who directs the Commonweal Health and Environment Program.   Corte Madera resident Andrea Martin is the founder and former director of the San Francisco-based Breast Cancer Fund.  The other volunteers were a pesticides expert from Westchester, New York; a registered nurse and health care advocate in Washington, D.C; a New Orleans attorney specializing in environmental justice; and broadcast journalist Bill Moyers. 

It’s a relatively affluent group, age 34-68.  None of them lives near an industrial facility , none of them works with chemicals.  They all tested positive for PCBs (industrial insulators banned in the U.S. since 1976), dioxins and furans (toxic by-products of plastics production, industrial bleaching and incineration), insecticides (some of which are now banned in the U.S.), phthalates (plasticizers found in water bottles and cosmetics, some of which were recently banned in Europe), volatile and semi-volatile industrial solvents and lead.  They’re all wondering how and where they were exposed, and how their health may have been affected. 

Patton sits in her office at Commonweal holding a spreadsheet that lists all the chemicals found in her blood, at what concentrations.  “If I could read this, this is a history of my life,” she says.  “I could say, oh, that’s the day I was polishing my shoes while I was downwind from some kind of weather pattern.  It’s like a fingerprint.  It’s unique to me.”  The insidiousness of chemical exposure is that, most of the time, we’re unaware of it.  And, without adequate testing, we can’t be sure what it does to us.  “I have had two miscarriages.  Is it related to DDT in my body?  I don’t know that.  I will never know that. But if I had been able to get these chemicals out of my body in the days when I was fertile, I would have done that.”

Patton has been working for years on environmental issues and women’s reproductive health.  She was northern co-chair of a group that promoted the international treaty to eliminate Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs) – chemicals known to mimic hormones and disrupt endocrine systems in humans and wildlife.  “These chemicals are really damaging to developing fetuses,” she says.  “When a woman is pregnant, especially during early pregnancy, very small amounts of these chemicals that are stored in her fatty tissue may cross the placental barrier.  The developing fetus looks at these chemicals and thinks it’s some kind of hormone, accepts it, and it triggers a cascade of deleterious effects.  It damages the developing immune system, the developing neurological system and the developing reproductive system.  Women who had eaten one game fish a month from Lake Ontario gave birth to babies that had developmental disabilities.” 

The babies also were found to have what’s called a “low startle response” – they’re easily frightened and hard to comfort.  “If Mom comes out of the shower with a towel around her head for the first time, a [normal] baby might laugh, it may not notice, or it may be a little alarmed and cry, but Mom comforts the baby and it’s fine.  But when babies are born with a low startle response, they see Mom with a towel around her head and they’re terrified,” explains Patton.  “It takes hours to console them and they are terrified day after day after day.  They don’t get used to it.  And they found out that these kids have a lot of PCBs in them.  They also have a compromised immune system.  Another study showed that kids born with high levels of PCBs have lower I.Q.s.”

Patton’s conversation is filled with references to studies that she rattles off as familiarly as if she were telling you what she had for lunch.  And she’ll veer unexpectedly from the grim to the goofy, often in the same breath.  She keeps an upright piano and a standup bass in her office, and she plays them when she needs to unwind.  In her younger days, she was in a rock band that played, she says, “all the anti-war demonstrations.  We always had a drummer, so we would rent a practice facility in an industrial area of town, so maybe we were someplace where there were a lot of PCBs.”  Her PCB levels were among the highest in this study.  “This could have happened a long time ago, there’s no way to know that.  PCBs especially last a long time.”  These days, she plays mostly bluegrass with a friend.  “We call ourselves the ‘Long-Term Effects’ – whenever you see an article that says ‘and no one knows the long-term effects,’ we figure that’s us.  Our first CD is going to be called ‘And More Research Is Needed.’” 

The two phrases are repeated so often that they begin to sound like clichés.  “Everybody says we need more science, but it’s quite real,” says Dr. Michael McCally, who led the study at Mt. Sinai.  “Long-term exposures to toxic materials is something that there isn’t a big amount of research dollars for, so the science goes very slowly.  And the studies that need to be done are expensive.”

As founder of the Breast Cancer Fund, Andrea Martin has spent years fighting for research to save women’s lives.  Now she’s fighting for her own life.  After beating back two rounds of breast cancer and climbing Mount Fuji with a battalion of other survivors, she was diagnosed with a brain tumor in May, 2001.  She underwent surgery to remove most of it, but it has since grown back.  She wants to know what has made her sick.  “We have a right to know what’s in our bodies, and we have a right to know how we’re exposed [to chemicals], and we have a right to know what the effects are,” she says.  “And until you can tell me that this hasn’t had anything to do with my cancers, then I have to fight for having us ban these chemicals and to require producers of the chemicals to show us the data.”

Martin has a presence that fills a room, though she’s no bigger than a child.  She blasts the chemical industry for inadequate testing that ignores effects on half the population, if focused on humans at all.  “All of the studies that we have now are based on animals or 160-pound white men, and that’s meaningless to me, and to children and to babies.  But it’s something industry likes, because they just hide behind it and say, ‘if you’re below this [level of exposure], you’re safe.’  And we don’t really know that.  There’s no proof that we’re safe, at all.  In fact, of all the 80.000 chemicals that we’ve produced since the end of World War II, only a very, very small percentage have been actually studied for their effect on human health.”

Martin’s tests showed unusually high levels of one dioxin and one of the furans, but overall her readings weren’t notable.  She spent her first 21 years near the Mississippi River, and speculates that she probably picked up toxic exposures there, but no more than millions of other people.  “The Mississippi corridor is very polluted,” she says.  “I grew up in Memphis and went to school in New Orleans, ate all the shellfish from the river, and even as a child I used to go boating and swimming and waterskiing in the river.  I was high in a lot of categories, but I don’t think I’m that different than anybody else.  I don’t work in industry.  The worst thing I probably do is pump my own gas – well, so does everybody else.”

One of the goals of this study is to promote more nationwide “body burden” testing, so that we know what levels of chemicals are carried in the general population.  Biomonitoring, the technology that assesses these levels in human bodily fluids, is only in its infancy.  The Centers for Disease Control did its first biomonitoring study in 2001, testing for 27 chemicals in blood and urine samples from 2,500 people across the country.  The second study, released in January, tested for 116 chemicals.   The CDC plans to underwrite more testing in selected states.  But, at this point, the high cost of biomonitoring keeps testing limited.  The Mt. Sinai/EWG/Commonweal study spent $4900 to test each of the nine volunteers.

“We’d like to make body burden testing in another 10 years as affordable and as available as a Pap smear or a cholesterol count,” says Commonweal founder Michael Lerner.  “I think we can do that if we can move this testing into the marketplace and just encourage the kind of  market competition that reduces cost dramatically.   If we can develop ways that people can get tested affordably and link these individual test outcomes together into a broader database, we’ll have a natural experiment going on in this country that gives us insight into the effects of these exposures.”

Until we can make clear associations in large-scale studies between chemical body burden and health effects, it’s difficult to force government to take protective action.  Federal investigators came up empty in Fallon, Nevada, for example, trying to explain a cluster of childhood leukemia cases.  Sixteen children out of a population of 27,000 had the disease, which nationally strikes only three in 100,000.  Although elevated levels of arsenic and tungsten were found in the drinking water, the feds weren’t able to establish a causal link.  “The wonderful scientists who investigate these cancer clusters typically know that it’s going to be almost impossible for them, given the limits of their scientific methods, to say anything definitive about whether this is linked to a particular exposure,” says Lerner.  “It’s really a limitation of how epidemiology currently works.  Biomonitoring is an enormously important tool in understanding these environmental exposures.”

Biomonitoring may also help us determine safety thresholds.  As it is, we don’t know what exposure levels are safe.  For example, while the CDC warns that phthalates – ingredients in the most widely used household products, including children’s plastic toys – are known to cause liver, kidney and reproductive damage in lab animals, the agency hasn’t established safety guidelines for people.  So when the Consumer Product Safety Commission was recently faced with a petition to remove phthalate-ridden plastics from toys, the commission refused.   The decision was based on the unproven assumption that the amount of phthalates that children ingest from chewing on toys is too low to be harmful. 

Many toxicologists still rely on a 16th-century principle, “the dose makes the poison” – in other words, anything is safe if the dose is low enough.   “The theory is that you can find a place at which effects will cease, and you back off from that to establish a safe dose,” says Davis Baltz, one of the nine volunteers.  “But they’re finding with some of these endocrine disrupters that they back down in an animal study to a place where they don’t see any effects, but then, at an extremely low level, they’ll find another effect that is sometimes unrelated to the effect they found at the higher level.  So the implication is that there really isn’t a safe level for some of these chemicals.”  For example, DES, a synthetic estrogen, inhibits prostate growth at large doses, but stimulates prostate growth at doses 10,000 times smaller.  Perchlorate – a contaminant of drinking water produced in explosives and chemical manufacturing --  causes brain changes in tiny doses, and none in doses 300 times larger.

It’s also unknown how these chemicals affect us in combination.  “If I have 105 chemicals in my body, how are they interacting?” asks Patton.  “And how could you devise a system to test for all the possible combinations of 105 chemicals?  The U.S. EPA estimates we all carry about 600 chemicals in our bodies, but it’s anybody’s guess.”  The limited testing that has been done on chemical interactions gives cause for concern, says Patton.  “I know that when you combine PCBs with dioxins, at least in rats, the chance of creating liver damage is increased by about 100 times. And we know that Atrazine [a weed-killer] and Aldicarb [a pesticide] – two chemicals used in the Midwest like crazy – really collide together and cause the adult immune system to have problems.  Nobody knows what causes cancer, but if you have a compromised immune system, it can’t clean the cancer cells out of your body. So we’re not surprised to see that breast cancer rates are increasing, children with brain cancer are on the increase, testicular and prostate cancer are increasing.”  Endocrine disrupters like Atrazine and Aldicarb, which mimic estrogen, are also linked with early sexual development in girls and malformed, feminized genitals in baby boys.  Sperm counts are down and Viagra sales are up.

Lerner and others at Commonweal are looking into detoxification methods that claim to rid the body of pollutants to see if any of them work.  And, for his own part, he’s eliminating fish from his diet in the hope that he can bring down his mercury level, which tested very high.  The long-term fix for all of us, however, is to cut off the flow of contaminants into our environment.  The few chemicals that have been banned are beginning to diminish in the air, soil and water.  If we successfully counter the Bush administration’s call to stymie further clean-up efforts, the body burden of chemicals each of us carries will eventually lighten.

Still more can be done.  The EWG report calls for reform of the Toxic Substances Control Act, the toothless federal statute that’s supposed to regulate commercial chemical products, but grants no authority to EPA to do so.  EWG recommends that industry be required to prove the safety of new chemicals before they’re put on the market, to make public any confidential studies already undertaken, and to stop production of all chemicals shown to be unsafe.  In California, state Senator Deborah Ortiz (D-Sacramento) plans to introduce a bill that will set up biomonitoring programs in local communities, so that we can begin to amass more data on the health effects of these chemicals.  Of course, legislation is only as good as its enforcement.  Congress passed the Food Quality Protection Act in 1996, part of which requires EPA to screen and test chemicals for potential to disrupt hormone function.  That part has never been implemented.  There’s also a huge backlog in EPA’s re-assessments of the effects of chemicals on children, another program mandated by Congress. 

“Day by day, we’re all walking through these plumes of chemicals that are mostly invisible to us,” says Baltz.  “It’s getting on our shoes, we’re tracking it into the house, it’s on our food, settling on our skin.  We need more biomonitoring to figure out how people are getting exposed.  If we do that, we’ll be better armed to make policy recommendations and put pressure on politicians to put forward more precautionary poicies.  The way we make our environmental decisions these days, we need an overwhelming burden of proof before we act.  Chemicals are sort of assumed to be innocent until proven guilty, the public bearing the risks.”