California to Measure Toxic Pollutants in People

Go Ahead, Drink Bacon Grease for Breakfast

The Governor of California wants to terminate the toxins in your body.  Unfortunately he's up against a foe more insidious than anything he ever faced in the movies.

Last Friday Gov. Schwarzenegger signed into law the nation's first statewide biomonitoring program.  The plan is to collect blood, urine, breast milk and hair from a few thousand Californians who volunteer to have their bodies tested for pollutants.

What's in you is bound to scare you.  Locked in fat cells and bone and circulating through your blood is a potentially toxic cocktail of thousands of human-made chemicals, some of which have been banned for decades.  They have names with pronunciations as troublesome as the chemicals themselves, such as mono-2-ethylhexyl-phthalate.

Seeing how the daily recommended allowance for mono-2-ethylhexyl-phthalate is zero milligrams, its presence in your body—along with so many other chemical byproducts of our industrial age—might spell trouble.

You failed the drug test

You can eat right and exercise, swear off cigarettes, and bypass north Jersey by a good 100 miles on your way to New England, but you cannot avoid a daily dose of these substances that—in a laboratory, fed to animals at high doses—cause cancer and neurological problems. 

These chemicals are everywhere, in the soil, air and water; and now they are in us as a result of eating things that soak up soil, air and water.  Switching to organic foods won't help that much, because chemicals such as dioxins and furans are ubiquitous, released into the air by industry and even forest fires.  These chemicals settle on organic crops and on the grass that organic cattle eat. 

Running off to the ends of the Earth won't help either.  The Inuit of Nunavut and Greenland have the highest levels of polychlorinated biphenyl (PCB) contamination in the world.  PCBs, banned in the 1970s, were used for decades in paints, adhesives, coolants and insulating materials.  These chemicals leaked into the waterways from landfills or outright ocean dumping, settled into sediment, were absorbed by plants and microorganisms, and slowly made their way into seal, salmon and whale fat, the Inuit's primary food sources.  Nice, huh?

Will it kill you?

Are these chemicals causing the higher rates of certain cancers and Alzheimer's seen in recent years?  Scientists aren't sure.  Some say we are living longer and healthier than ever, in part because of chemicals that, say, make fabrics flame-resistant.  Plastics are lighter to ship than glass and reduce fuel burning, a good thing.

Others say that modern chemicals accumulated in the body are bound to do us in.  It's hard to argue the added health benefit of fabric softeners and sweet-scented hand lotions containing phthalates, which alter the sexual development of laboratory mice.

California's biomonitoring program, targeting pollution in people instead of in the environment, could be a valuable tool to assess the true danger.  The program builds upon reports from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention on human exposure to chemicals, which analyzed bodily samples from a diverse group of Americans. 

Safe as mother's milk

Not all health advocates favor the California plan.  Once you know what's inside you, what do you do?

Of greatest concern is how the mass media will handle the inevitable discovery that mother's milk contains banned and potentially dangerous chemicals.  California is testing mother's milk chiefly because the breasts' fat cells so readily accumulate certain chemicals.

Yet except in rare, acute poisoning cases, the benefits of breastfeeding outweigh the risks, if any, of passing pollutants from mother to infant.  Will the decades' old campaign to encourage breastfeeding be side-railed by hyperbole of tainted mother's milk?  In some cultures, mothers might become depressed, seeing themselves as failures for not keeping their bodies pure.

At issue is the public's misunderstanding of hazard versus risk.  A ladder is a hazard.  Standing on the top rung is a risk.  The mere presence of all these chemicals in our body is a hazard; that much is not refuted.  The risk of levels at one part per million, billion or trillion is not well understood.

Humans as lab rats

Having your body tested for the presence of a hundred or so of the most worrisome chemicals will set you back at least $10,000.  Lead and mercury, dangerous at that part-per-million level, are easy and inexpensive to spot.  Dioxin, dangerous at perhaps the part-per-trillion level, is harder to test for.

Sadly it is for this cost reason that so many chemicals cooked up since the 1940s haven't been "officially" tested on humans.  But we're all taking part in a great big lab experiment as these chemicals are pumped into the environment and retracted—like lead and PCBs—only after it becomes obvious that they pose serious health risks.

California will take at least a small step in understanding how pollutants from hot spots, such as farmlands or factories, penetrate those closest to the source (farm and factory workers) as well as those downstream (consumers and residents).  The law once again places California on the cutting edge, or reaffirms its reputation as a land granola-crunching loonies, depending on your opinion.

Christopher Wanjek is the author of the books “Bad Medicine” and “Food At Work.” Got a question about Bad Medicine? Email Wanjek. If it’s really bad, he just might answer it in a future column. Bad Medicine appears each Tuesday on LIveScience.

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Christopher Wanjek
Live Science Contributor

Christopher Wanjek is a Live Science contributor and a health and science writer. He is the author of three science books: Spacefarers (2020), Food at Work (2005) and Bad Medicine (2003). His "Food at Work" book and project, concerning workers' health, safety and productivity, was commissioned by the U.N.'s International Labor Organization. For Live Science, Christopher covers public health, nutrition and biology, and he has written extensively for The Washington Post and Sky & Telescope among others, as well as for the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, where he was a senior writer. Christopher holds a Master of Health degree from Harvard School of Public Health and a degree in journalism from Temple University.