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