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Shouldering My Body Burden

By Carolyn Fine Friedman

With the recent resurgence of publicity around Rachel Carson’s
Silent Spring, which celebrated its
50th anniversary in September, I am reminded of my own journey to
discover, accept, and increase public awareness of the frightening number and toxicity of chemicals in our
environment and our bodies.

When I received the results of my biomonitoring study a few
years ago, I felt a retching sensation.  Then, I did the only thing I
could do upon getting confirmation that my body was riddled with
risks that had suddenly become visible – I went into denial and put
the results on the shelf to collect ‘toxic’ dust.

This journey started in 2005, when Rachel’s Network
initiated a strategic partnership with Environmental Working Group (EWG) to
help expand their database of evidence that unregulated toxic chemicals were
accumulating in human tissue, with the ultimate goal of helping EWG amplify the
drumbeat for reform.  In 2006, I
participated in Rachel’s Network’s first cohort of “Body Burden” testing along
with 17 other members, some of whom had their children tested to measure the
cross-generational ubiquity of chemical contamination.  I gave blood (and
a few other bodily fluids) to the cause and waited in dread to see which
industrial toxins had polluted my system.

My body burden included a toxic soup of substances known to
cause cancer, birth defects, thyroid problems and more — low perchlorate and
PFCs, high phthalates, moderate PBDEs, an immeasurable amount of triclosan,
and high levels of lead, mercury, and methyl mercury, which I learned from Dr. Sandra
Steingraber at a Rachel’s Network meeting is a “saboteur of the brain.”

Many of those chemicals are permanently lodged in my (and
your) body, even though I didn’t invite them in.  They traveled in through the products that we use every day:
the stuffing that makes my
furniture comfortable (see a recent New
York Times Magazine
article “How
Dangerous Is Your Couch?
”), the makeup I don’t admit to anyone I wear, the
antibacterial soap by my kitchen and bathroom sinks, the lining inside
cans of tomato sauce, plastic water bottles, etc.

There are more than 80,000 of these unregulated chemicals
swimming around the planet right now.  Lord only knows which of my
ailments are the result of the multiple chemicals I’ve been exposed
to for half a century.  I recall reading a Boston Globe article entitled “Lead Exposure Linked to Depression Risk
which stated that “the presence of lead in the blood — even at what health
officials say is a safe level — is associated with an increased risk of
depression and panic disorder in young and middle-aged adults.”   Finally, a rational
explanation for my irrational fear of flying!

You might reassure yourself that the government must protect
the public from damaging chemicals, but the law that pertains to them, the
Toxics Substances Control Act of 1976 has sat impotently by as the number of
chemicals and their use has exploded over the last 36 years.

The biomonitoring
study by EWG was a powerful tool in a campaign that began in the late 1990’s,
first to figure out what harm these chemicals pose and then to work toward
eliminating them from use.   Now, with an increasing number of
partners and a strong coalition – the Safer
Chemicals, Healthy Families
coalition — we are at a pivotal moment in the
life of this debate.  There is a real chance that this campaign will
culminate in a new law, if not in this session, hopefully after the November

This legislative opportunity and the passage of time have
helped me move beyond denial of my “body burden” and given me new motivation to
stop the inflow of toxic chemicals into our bodies and those of future
generations. And, I am grateful that I am not a lone voice in this debate, as
Rachel Carson was.  I have my
fellow Rachel’s Network members, the wider environmental health community and,
hopefully, YOU to join me.

Visit the Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families Action Center to see how you can support this movement.