Health & Fitness

Analysis of humans detects chemicals

FORT WORTH, Texas - Angelia and John Counts have two kids, two dogs and a three-bedroom home on a leafy cul-de-sac in a suburb near Fort Worth.

They also have dozens of toxic chemicals in their blood. So do their children.

And scientists say they're just like you.

The Countses are among 12 people who volunteered, as part of a newspaper project, to have their blood analyzed for more than 80 of the many man-made chemicals in widely used products. The chemicals include flame retardants in many car seat cushions and computer wires, pesticides in imported fruits and vegetables, and the coatings often found in microwave popcorn bags and fast-food wrappers.

The goal: Determine how many of those chemicals are in their bodies.

The analysis found small amounts of dozens of the chemicals in everyone tested.

National studies

The overall results mirror those of national studies and highlight what health experts fear is an emerging threat.

"Everybody in the U.S. has many chemicals in them," said Dr. Arnold Schecter, a public-health physician and researcher at the University of Texas School of Public Health in Dallas, who helped guide the Fort Worth Star-Telegram's effort.

To many, exposure to these potentially harmful chemicals is the tradeoff for living in such a technologically advanced society with a high standard of living. These substances are found in many of the items that make our lives convenient, comfortable and safe.

While none of the chemicals detected in the study was at levels considered to be an immediate health concern, they build up in the body and the environment.

Health experts aren't sure how each chemical individually affects people's health, to say nothing of the mixture.

"If you knew the answer, you'd be way ahead of the game," said Larry Needham, a research chemist in the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's environmental health lab in Atlanta.

Effects not clear

In general, experts believe that the mixture can weaken the body's ability to fight off illnesses. At high enough levels, some of the chemicals have been shown to cause cancer and birth defects. Some also are known or suspected to cause developmental problems.

"There is a difficulty in understanding - what does the soup of chemicals mean?" said Dr. Nachman Brautbar, a medical toxicologist at the University of Southern California's School of Medicine. "Is it good for the body? Probably not."

Many of the chemicals the project measured have long been banned in the U.S. They include the pesticide DDT, a known ­cancer-causing agent, as well as an extremely dangerous form of dioxin that was in the Vietnam War defoliant Agent Orange.

Both were found in the study participants, even in some who hadn't been born until after the chemical compounds were removed from products here.

That's because the substances take many years to break down. PCBs, for example, were banned in the U.S. in 1977. But "about 70Â percent of what was ever made is still out there," said Linda Birnbaum, an Environmental Protection Agency toxicologist in North Carolina.

Little regulation

Other chemicals the project measured aren't subject to much regulation. They include the compound used to make DuPont's popular Teflon nonstick cookware, as well as the flame retardants in many mattresses and television wires.

Both types of chemicals were found in study participants.

Questions about the potential health impact have sparked an increasingly contentious debate over whether the government should do more to protect people. The outcome could have a huge impact. Evidence of harm could force companies to change how they make many common household items and open them up to multimillion-dollar lawsuits.

Some chemical manufacturers are taking precautionary measures. In the last six years, companies including DuPont and 3M have voluntarily withdrawn or have committed to phase out and replace the chemical compounds used in nonstick pans, stain-resistant carpets and flame retardants.

Industry officials, however, say the concentrations of chemicals are so low that they're harmless.

Some of the amounts found are so small that the technology to detect them did not exist until about 15 years ago.

"These are tiny levels of compounds which now suddenly we can detect," said Sarah Brozena, a senior director at the American Chemistry Council, the industry trade association. "Finding a chemical in our bodies is merely finding evidence of an exposure. It doesn't tell you anything about the source of the exposure or how big the exposure was that caused it. And it especially doesn't tell you anything about what risk it might pose at that level."


Brozena and others say having low levels of toxic chemicals in your body is part of the tradeoff for such a high standard of living.

"I tend to think we ought to be a little bit careful before we start saying, 'Oh, everything we ingest is horrible, and it's killing us,"' said Roger Meiners, an economics and law professor at the University of Texas at Arlington who says the federal government overregulates environmental pollutants. "We're living longer and longer, so overall it seems to be working pretty well."

Nowhere is the issue of trade-off more obvious than with flame retardants, which today are found in virtually every U.S. resident at levels that are far and away the world's highest. They're commonly found in the air and water, and they've been measured in lake sediments and in wildlife worldwide.

Animal studies have shown that at high enough levels, the chemicals harm the nervous system and cause reproductive problems, including spontaneous abortions.