Pollution in People
Last year, ten Washington residents agreed to testing of their hair, blood, and urine for the presence of toxic chemicals as part of an investigative study by the Toxic-Free Legacy Coalition. The Coalition was seeking to determine which chemicals were getting into our bodies, and at what levels, to better understand the potential harm posed by poor regulation of chemicals, and to develop better solutions.
For decades, toxic chemicals in soil, water, air, and sediment have made front-page news. These chemicals range from pesticides like DDT, banned more than thirty years ago but still polluting our soil, to the flame-retarding PCBs and PBDEs building up in salmon and orca whales.
Scientists are now finding these same chemicals in people. The computers we use every day, the cars we drive, and the pans we cook on are leaching toxic chemicals into our homes and into our bodies.
We tested for six groups of chemicals: phthalates; PBDEs; the heavy metals arsenic, lead, and mercury; perfluorinated chemicals like those used to make Teflon; pesticides; and the banned but persistent chemicals PCBs and DDT. Our findings reveal that under the current regulatory system, toxic chemicals from consumer products and industrial pollution contaminate each of us and threaten our health.
- Toxic chemicals from consumer products, food, and industrial pollution contaminate our bodies. Every person tested had at least 26 and as many as 39 toxic chemicals in his or her body. This pollution came from food; everyday household dust; direct contact with products such as personal care items, consumer electronics, and stain-resistant furniture; and from contaminated soil, air, and water. Many of the chemicals do not break down or do so slowly, and therefore build up in human bodies and breastmilk.
- The toxic chemicals in our bodies are cause for concern because they can lead to health problems. For some chemicals, the levels we found are at or near those believed to be capable of causing serious problems, such as infertility and learning deficits. Many of these problems can result from being exposed to chemicals at critical points of child development, which can cause permanent damage.
Every participant was contaminated with phthalates, found in myriad everyday products. The same is true for perfluorinated chemicals, used to make Teflon and stain-protection treatments for paper and textiles.
Every participant had PCBs in his or her blood, despite a decades-old ban on the chemicals. PCBs from everyday exposures have been shown to cause learning deficits.
Every participant had PBDEs in his or her blood. Dr. Patricia Dawson had PBDEs in her body at levels close to those that cause reproductive problems in laboratory animals.
We found a marker for the pesticide carbaryl, considered a carcinogen by the EPA, in five of ten participants: Rev. Ann Holmes Redding, Sen. Lisa Brown, Sen. Bill Finkbeiner, Deb Abrahamson, and Allyson Schrier.
Three of our ten participants—Denis Hayes, Sen. Bill Finkbeiner, and Karen Bowman—had mercury exposures above the Environmental Protection Agency’s “safe” levels.
Even Laurie Valeriano, toxic chemical expert and regular organic shopper, tested positive for more than two dozen chemicals.
- State and federal government have failed to prevent the use of harmful chemicals in consumer products, manufacturing processes, and food production. Most chemicals are virtually unregulated, because federal law does not require testing for harmful effects before chemicals are allowed for use in products or manufacturing. Once chemicals are in use, it is extremely difficult for the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to restrict them. The law does require pesticide testing, but at the same time it permits the ongoing use of pesticides that can cause cancer, nervous system harm, and other health problems. At the state level, Washington lacks the legal and regulatory structure needed to prevent harmful chemicals from turning up in consumer products, air, water, and people.
Washington state, already a leader in phasing out some dangerous chemicals such as mercury, should take immediate steps to protect the health of its residents by developing a common-sense chemicals policy that ensures only the safest chemicals are used in consumer products, manufacturing, and food production.
Governor Gregoire, the legislature, and agencies should take the following steps:
Come clean with the facts. Require companies to provide data on the health effects caused by the chemicals they produce or use in production. Companies must also be required to make this information available to the public.
Take out the toxics. Develop immediate plans to phase out of products and manufacturing chemicals that can damage children’s intellectual development, harm reproduction, cause cancer, or build up in our bodies.
Switch to safer substitutes. Assist companies in replacing hazardous chemicals with safer substances and practices, using requirements, incentives, and technical assistance.
A Real Solution Is Emerging
A growing number of companies are already switching to safer chemicals and practices in response to mounting scientific evidence and growing consumer demand. Microsoft has switched to safer packaging plastics, the health care community has taken strides to reduce its use of mercury and phthalates, and food companies like Campbell’s Soup Company are marketing organic alternatives, produced without harmful pesticides. In the regulatory arena, the European Union has led the way by establishing a forward-thinking chemicals policy that requires testing and moves companies toward safer materials and processes.
This study’s findings show that toxic chemicals which can cause cancer, learning problems, and infertility are likely already in all Washingtonians. The Toxic-Free Legacy Coalition calls on Governor Gregoire, the state Legislature, and state agencies to lead our state into a healthy future with real reform to ensure that our consumer products and food are made in the safest ways possible.