Environment

Avoiding Everyday Toxins

They're everywhere -- in the food we eat, in the cosmetics we use, in the houses where we live. Is there an alternative?
Unexpected Toxins

Without knowing it, 35-year-old Jeremiah Holland lost a lot more than weight when he decided to start seriously exercising two years ago. His racing bike helped him trim down from 118 to 90 kilos (260 to 200 pounds). What Holland could never have suspected was that during that period, he was also ridding his body of something else -- something he never knew was there: polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), dichloro-diphenyl-trichloroethane (DDT), perfluoroctane sulfonates (PFOS), phthalates and a host of other unpronounceable chemical substances that are stored in fat -- and that remain in our bodies for a long, long time. Holland would never have been the wiser if he hadn't been chosen as a test subject in a project conducted by the Oakland Tribune, which studied the effect of toxic chemicals in the human body.

So as not to create too much panic, the editorial staff chose a family that the newspaper's advisory counsel of scientists felt would be at low risk. The family eats organic food, avoids chemical cleaning products, has no carpeting in their house and doesn't buy lots of new furniture and electronic equipment: in short, the newspaper selected Jeremiah Holland and Michele Hammond and their two children Mikaela, age five and 18-month-old Rowan. But as responsible and healthy as their lives seemed, the tests proved that their bodies contained traces of numerous chemicals, some at levels exceeding the legally established maximums. The blood, hair and urine of each family member showed traces of dioxins, mercury, lead, cadmium and the chemicals used for coating pans with Teflon.

What was surprising was the presence of PCBs, which are used in products such as paint, ink, glue and plastic. PCBs can damage the skin and liver, are linked to cancer, birth defects and disruptions to the hormone system and brain development. The list of health risks led to a global ban on the production and use of PCBs in the 1970s, so why are they still showing up in the Holland family?

An even bigger surprise was the strong presence of polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs), a flame retardant used in all kinds of products from plastics to cell phones. It is estimated that adults in the United States have 36 parts per billion (ppb) of this substance in their blood. Think of that as 36 grains of salt in 50 kilos [110 pounds]of mashed potatoes. But the father had 102 ppb, the mother 138, the daughter 490 and the son 838, more than what would normally be found in the blood of people who work with this substance on a daily basis. Scientists note that laboratory rats start exhibiting problems with their thyroid glands at levels of 300 ppb.

So what can the Holland-Hammond family do with this information? And what can you do? Are these substances in everyone's bodies? Just how toxic are they? How do they get into our bodies? How do we get rid of them? Let's start at the beginning. Yes, chemical substances are everywhere. In remote lakes in Finland, in the Himalayas, at the South Pole -- there's not an outpost in the world they have not reached. Including your body. The reason: poison knows no bounds.

Chemicals are carried along by air and water currents. The pesticides used on a banana plantation in Ecuador, the bleach used in a paper factory in Canada, the fluorine polymers produced in a chemical plant in France: they're spreading across the world, accumulating in the environment and ending up in the food chain. They are then stored in people's fat tissue and slowly released into the body. Admittedly, the amounts in question are miniscule. A couple of "parts per billion" of a substance in your blood means you're talking about pieces of a chocolate bar you're gradually spreading among the 740,000 inhabitants of San Francisco. That's not a lot of chocolate, but poison is still poison, even in such tiny amounts.

New technologies have made it now possible to detect chemicals in increasingly low doses. But the chemical industry reassures us there is absolutely no reason to panic. Fred vom Saal thinks there ís reason to panic. In a study of rats and mice, this Professor of Biological Sciences at the University of Missouri, proved that even minimal doses of a natural or synthetic hormone can have lasting effects on reproduction and fertility. And he showed how minimal doses of one of the most widely used chemicals -- bisphenol A, which is used in the production of plastic -- imitate or in fact block hormonal functions. Vom Saal reports, "The low doses are the hardest part of the story. We're talking about 0.1 parts per a trillionth of a gram in a milliliter of blood, and still we're seeing profound changes we can't explain in a different way."

Through his study Vom Saal discovered that a slight increase in the female hormone estradiol in male mice foetuses leads to an enlarged prostate. This may provide an explanation for the spectacular increase in prostate problems among men, and a surprising one considering that most medicines prescribed for prostate cancer contain estradiol.

Toxic Industry

This is also a story about the unparalleled success of the chemical industry. It's a story about our increasing dependence on synthetic materials in nearly every aspect of our lives. That has brought us a level of luxury our grandparents couldn't have imagined. We keep our leftover food in plastic containers in the refrigerator. We clean the floor without scrubbing. There are pleasing scents we can use on our skin and in our homes. We have computers, TVs, DVD players and mobile telephones. And if we accidentally spill a little of our red wine on the tablecloth, there is an arsenal of cleaning products that wipe away our concern, along with the stain.

Of course you may be the type of person that never wears a polyester shirt, but the "100 percent cotton" alternative was very likely made from cotton processed with synthetic pesticides. You may have wooden furniture at home because it looks so natural, but the manufacturers likely used solvents, glue and a finish containing toxic ingredients. It is our hunger for affordable and convenient luxury that has led the chemical industry to launch some 1,000 new chemical substances a year on the market. You might think that all those substances are methodically tested before they are used in everyday products. They haven't.

Of the many tens of thousands of chemicals used today, the U.S. environmental agency EPA calculates that fewer than 1,000 have been tested for their effects on the human nervous system and immune system. (Yes you read that right -- fewer than one thousand.) For some substances there is a legal maximum for levels considered acceptable in the body which has been established by scientists. That should offer some reassurance. However no legal maximums have been set for the vast majority of chemicals, and it appears that people are very rarely tested to measure levels in the body of those chemicals for which a maximum has been set. Moreover, it is not unusual for the legal norm to be exceeded and no scientist can tell you what that means for you.

The Repercussions

While it is not easy to show how the chemicals in our bodies affect our health (see "Chemical soup"), scientists point to two symptoms that regularly surface when it comes to the most notorious chemical substances:

  • Disruption of the hormone system. Chemicals imitate or block the effect of hormones. This can have a negative impact on our reproductive organs, reduce the number of sperm cells, affect their quality and impair fertility. This disruptive process has also been linked to developmental problems.

  • Impairment of the immune system. The chemical substances cause the body to become "confused," which means it is no longer able to recognize what is a foreign element in the body and what is not. That process is seen in auto-immune diseases such as diabetes, arthritis and lupus. According to the Environmental Working Group, an influential environmental organization in the United States, chemical substances in our bodies can also be linked to the following illnesses and complaints: cancer, birth defects, developmental delays, vision and hearing problems, hormone system malfunction, and disorders in the stomach, intestines, kidney, brain, nervous system, reproductive system, lungs, skin, liver, cardiovascular system or immune system, male and female reproductive system. (Be forewarned, however, before you storm off to your family doctor armed with this information. Most doctors have very little training in linking these complaints to the chemicals in our bodies. Moreover, they usually have little time to probe deeply into new areas of medical investigation. So be prepared for a resolute denial of any association between the products to which you are exposed in your daily life and your health.)


In an environment full of chemical substances, children appear to be extremely vulnerable. Children eat, drink and breathe more in proportion to their body weight than adults, which means the doses they take in are proportionally higher. Every day, babies and toddlers put things in their mouths and crawl over carpeting, both of which are major sources of toxins. Moreover, young children's immune systems are still developing and therefore more greatly affected by continual contact with chemicals.

Babies are even more at risk. The world was in a state of shock, recalls Ã…ke Bergman, when his 1999 study revealed that mothers' milk was seriously contaminated with PBDEs, the bromide-containing flame retardants that caused such a stir in the Holland family study. "PBDEs are hormone disrupters and affect the nervous system," said Bergman, head of the Department for Environmental Chemistry at Stockholm University. "While industry and politics were doing everything they could to reduce the manufacture and use of PBDEs, we showed that the amount of those substances in mothers' milk was doubling every five years."

A similar study was later conducted in the United States and the researchers discovered that PBDE levels were doubling even faster there: every 18 months. But the greatest risk is to unborn children. Because cell structures change quickly during the embryonic and fetus phase, exposure to chemicals can affect development. Although Bergman says we can only speculate about the effects of the "chemical cocktail in our bodies," as he calls it, the figures are just as shocking as they are unreal.

When babies are breastfed, they are exposed to higher concentrations of chemical substances than at any other time in their later life. More to the point, these babies are ingesting five times the tolerated maximum daily levels of PCBs according to the established international standard for adults weighing 75 kilos (165 lbs.). After six months of breastfeeding, a baby in Europe or America has ingested a level of dioxins considered as a lifetime maximum. And yet: breastfeeding still remains the best advice for mothers.

This is conclusion of many experts, including Gavin ten Tusscher, paediatrician at Amsterdam's Emma Children's Hospital, despite the fact that during his doctoral research he clearly observed that children who are exposed to higher doses of dioxins in the womb and through breastfeeding, often show disruptions to lung functioning, a compromised immune system, development irregularities and exhibit more behavioural problems. "Despite the chemicals in mothers' milk, it continues to be the single best thing you can give your child by far," says Ten Tusscher, who was involved in an internationally groundbreaking study that has been tracking a group of children since 1989. "Mothers' milk has clear advantages for babies: vital nutrients and essential antibodies are passed on. There are numerous studies showing the positive effects: a better immunity, a higher IQ, a better emotional connection, and so on. Our studies on dioxins mainly indicate that we must insist that politicians and companies take steps to improve the quality of mothers' milk and ensure that it is as free as possible from unnecessary chemicals."

So I’m toxic, now what?

How do we react to all this? Should you shudder at the presence of every product around you? After all, the exposure to everyday chemicals isn't exactly a theme that regularly appears on the agenda of health authorities. The World Health Organization, for instance, states that a whopping five million people die every year around the world due to the effects of smoking and that increasing numbers of people are overweight, meaning they run a greater risk of diabetes and heart disease. So how concerned should we really be about the packaging used for our frozen vegetables and the wallpaper in our living room?

"No concerns, I would say," says Colin Humphris, Executive Director Research and Science at CEFIC, the Brussels-based European Chemical Industry Council. "The proof for a link between the presence of chemicals in blood and health is extraordinarily tenuous. Many studies have been performed providing some information on exposure. That's interesting, but it doesn't give you any information about risks. Just the presence of some substance doesn't mean there is a health risk."

According to Humphris, there are many substances in our daily lives that are useful in small doses, but dangerous when we ingest too much. "Coffee -- which has thousands of chemical compounds -- is a perfectly reasonable drink which will help wake you up, six double-espressos in two or three hours will probably be sufficient to make you quite ill and ten double-espressos could be enough to kill you. The awkward thing here is that just about all chemicals are at a high dose dangerous. But you're not likely to get these high doses."

However, scientists, like Fred vom Saal, show that regular exposure to low doses also cause effects. According to Humphris their results are controversial. "It has proved very difficult to reproduce many of the experiments where these low dose effects are claimed." Growing public concern about safety seems to have had little effect so far on the chemical companies. New chemical substances continue to be introduced that critics say have not been sufficiently tested, even when the industry claims it has "investigated" them thoroughly. As a result, these critics say, we are using potentially dangerous products every day. Would Humphris board an airplane if he knew it had not been thoroughly tested in advance? "I think," he says after a few seconds of thought, "I would be relying on the judgement of the companies that are operating and their engineering services. How else would I have to make that decision?"

Chemical regulation

A basic question in all this is: don't consumers have the right to greater protection than simply trusting the judgement of the chemical manufacturers, whose primary focus must be earning a profit for their shareholders? This is exactly the premise of a groundbreaking draft law from the European Commission, the executive arm of the European Union, which may well bring on a revolution in the chemical industry.

According to the so-called REACH (Registration, Evaluation and Authorisation of Chemicals) directive, new chemical substances will have to comply with more stringent safety measures. Those rules will also apply to some 30,000 chemicals that are currently in use without ever having been thoroughly tested for any potentially harmful effect to humans or the environment. Substances that are considered carcinogenic or damaging to the hormone system or DNA material, under the new tests would have to be taken off the market within 10 years. Information from these tests -- which chemical companies previously kept secret -- will be accessible to everyone. As a result, companies would be given great incentives to find harmless alternatives.

These regulations have drawn a strong reaction from the chemical industry and politicians in the United States. They claim the directive (based on the precautionary principle, which states that if anything cannot be deemed safe it should not be used) is too complex and impracticable, the financial burden is too high, that jobs will be lost and that it would hinder scientific and industrial innovation.

The chemical industry is waging an intensive campaign in Washington and Brussels to frustrate the plans. The American political weekly The Nation (December 27, 2004) researched the issue and revealed that the U.S. government is financially supporting the chemical lobby and that former Secretary of State Colin Powell sent a message to all American embassies in Europe stating that REACH could present obstacles to trade and innovation. The implications of the law could be enormous. After all, new testing might show that commonly used substances are harmful, and would have to be taken off the European market. That would be a big blow to chemical producers, who are concerned that they would then face further opposition in other parts of the world.

"All the chemical lobby's claims and suggestions are inflated," according to Nadia Haimama Neurohr, political advisor at the European division of Greenpeace in Brussels. "That's clear from scores of studies of the impact of introducing REACH. These studies suggest that a gradual transition to alternative, less harmful substances will in fact create jobs and reduce costs.

Meanwhile, the chemical companies are leaving a tremendous mark on the discussion and the American government is threatening to take legal steps at the World Trade Organization." Meanwhile in the United States, a bill to give the state of California the authority to regulate chemical hazards in personal care products has passed legislature, and is now on the Governor's desk awaiting signature. The disclosure of cosmetics would only apply to ingredients that have a clear and scientifically established link to cancer or reproductive harm. These chemicals have already been banned by the EU.

The future of REACH

The introduction of REACH -- policymakers expected to have completed a new, definitive version of the law early next year -- appears to mark the end of the era when chemicals were considered harmless "until the opposite was proven." The European Union's embrace of the precautionary principle signals a radical shift. But how radical, the REACH supporters wonder, is it to do something that really seems be common sense?

Vyvyan Howard, a professor at Northern Ireland's University of Ulster Centre for Molecular Biological Sciences stood next to Swedish EU Commissioner Margot Wallström when she launched the REACH proposal. Howard believes the emancipation of the consumer is finally taking shape when it comes to substances that can affect their health. He notes, "We must remain open to the possibility that the chemical soup in our bodies can be linked to all kinds of modern problems. We have no idea how we can prove the original connection, but meanwhile I would like to advise everyone -- not only politicians -- to adopt the precautionary principle."

The opportunities are there. Pioneering companies -- including ever-bigger firms -- are manufacturing products in ways that prevent your body from becoming a chemical dumping ground. Why should you wait until there's proof that substances in your cosmetics, furniture and electronics are (or aren't) toxic when you can maintain the same quality of life and convenience using alternatives that are clearly above suspicion? Look over our Organic Top 40 and you'll see there are many alternatives -- and this list is only a few of the many products out there. But isn't that expensive? Yes, making a healthier choice will cost you more now (although you may well save money in the long run by keeping yourself healthy), and yet the question you might want to be asking is: dare I run the risk? Only you can provide the answer.
Marco Visscher is a Senior Editor at Ode.
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