Ottawa (Canada) Citizen, February 14, 2006


[Rachel's introduction: "Instead of waiting for conclusive evidence, many activists say there is enough information to start banning chemicals. They argue that manufacturers should have to prove new chemicals are safe before they are approved for use. This requires embracing the precautionary principle, which argues that in the absence of conclusive evidence in face of a serious threat, we must still take action."]

By Shelley Page and Susan Allan, Ottawa Citizen

[RPR Introduction: We have added internal links within this story for clarification.--RPR editors]

During the past 50 years, breast cancer incidence has climbed 90 per cent

- Lung cancer rates have jumped more than 600 per cent

- Non-Hodgkins lymphoma, a cancer tied to a weakened immune system, has increased 250 per cent

- Asthma affects more kids than ever before. Biomonitoring tests reveal toxic chemicals are in all of us, on that everyone seems to agree.

So what does it mean to human health? Scientists are only beginning to explore the links

Infants start life polluted with PCBs, pesticides and 200 industrial chemicals. Rocket fuel laces their mother's breast milk. Carcinogens, hormone disruptors and the chemicals used to make GOR-TEX and Teflon infuse everyone's blood.

New technology is making it possible to find ever smaller concentrations of chemicals in people's blood.

Suddenly, TV stars in Britain and celebrities in California are rolling up shirt sleeves to have their blood tested to draw attention to the issue. When almost 100 journalists in Pittsburgh handed over hair samples for testing, close to one-third showed elevated levels of mercury. Last year, the Environmental Working Group in Washington, D.C., released Body Burden: The Pollution in People, a study that examined the levels of 210 chemicals in nine people. In April, the World Wildlife Federation tested 39 members of the European Parliament for 101 compounds.

Until recently, Canadians stayed out of the bloodletting. Then last week the Toronto-based group Environmental Defence announced it had tested 11 Canadians for 88 chemicals believed to be either carcinogenic or to disrupt reproduction, hormonal function and/or interfere with fetal development. The study found, on average, participants had 44 chemicals in their bodies.

Renowned artist and environmentalist Robert Bateman was one of the test subjects. Despite eating organic food, using environmentally friendly cleaners and living on an idyllic West Coast island, his body was revealed to be a repository for 48 toxins: heavy metals; PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls used in electrical transformers and now banned); PBDEs (polybrominated diphenyl ethers used as fire retardants); PFOs (perfluorinated chemicals used in stain repellents, non-stick cookware and food packaging), pesticides and insecticides.

"I had no idea when they were taking those samples out of my arm that there was a possibility that all those chemicals could be in there," a bewildered Bateman told a journalist.

No one emerges unscathed.

But so what?

The Canadian report raised more questions than it answered.

Does the fact our bodies are laden with chemicals mean anything? Are the increasing number of cancers, fertility problems, auto-immune diseases, autism and other horrors related to these chemicals in our bodies? Can we trace learning difficulties, mental illness and brain fog to the chemicals our bodies absorbed as far back as the womb? Were the harsh pollutants found in Mr. Bateman and others in concentrations considered dangerous? If the majority of the studies' participants were healthy, at it appears, does this mean the toxic findings are meaningless?

For half a century, advancing societies have pumped the global environment full of synthetic chemicals, while realizing previously unimagined benefits. But during these five decades, our bodies, particularly our fat cells, have become storage tanks for the byproducts of vastly improved lifestyles.

Environmental activists call this "chemical body burden" -- the price of technological advance.

A few years ago, scientists could not detect these chemicals. Now that they can, they want to know if and how they affect human health. Researchers have yet to draw a conclusive line between body burden and health problems. Still, there are rising incidences of illness to consider:

- During the past 50 years, breast cancer incidence has climbed 90 per cent. The incidence of non-Hodgkins lymphoma, a cancer tied to a weakened immune system, increased 250 per cent in the same period.

- During the past decade, several studies have linked weak or defective sperm to employment in occupations with exposure to chemicals and pesticides. In 1938, only one-half of one per cent of men were functionally sterile. Today, that number is between eight and 12 per cent. Meanwhile, eight per cent of women of child-bearing age suffer fertility problems.

- Asthma affects more kids than ever before -- about 12 per cent of children under age 14.

Are these increases in health problems a result of the increase in chemicals in our environment?

Sometimes yes. Lung cancer rates jumped more than 600 per cent in the past 50 years, not because of industrial chemicals but rather tobacco smoke. That is when large numbers of women started smoking.

As for the other diseases, no one is certain environmental toxins play a role. Biomonitoring, the latest trend in public health, may provide answers.

By examining chemicals in the blood and urine, it's sometimes easy to see how public policy makes a difference to people's health.

By measuring cotinine -- a metabolite of nicotine -- U.S. researchers showed that blood levels of secondhand tobacco smoke decreased 75 per cent in adults during the 1990s, simply because smoking was banned at work and in public places. Levels in children remain twice as high as adults, showing that they continue to be exposed to second-hand smoke at home, out of the reach of government policy.

It is hoped biomonitoring will reveal much more about the presence and perhaps effects of toxins. The largest effort is the National Report on Human Exposure to Environmental Chemicals, an ongoing $6.5-million survey by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that measures about 145 chemicals in 2,500 people across the United States every two years. All year long, teams from the CDC dispatch four tractor- trailers to neighbourhoods in 30 locations across the country, interviewing residents, performing exams and sampling blood and urine.

Last July, it heralded its third nationwide report as the "largest and most comprehensive of its kind ever released anywhere by anyone... a giant step forward in our ability to understand the relationship between exposures to various chemicals and the potential human health effects."

Among the study's findings:

- Lead levels among children in the U.S. have dropped significantly during the past few years. Only 1.6 per cent of children in the study between the ages of one and five had elevated blood levels, down from 4.4 per cent in the early 1990s.

Lead exposure in children has been found to damage the brain and nervous system, cause behavioural and learning problems, such as hyperactivity, slowed growth, hearing problems and headaches.

"We continue to strive that all children are free from lead exposure in their home, in their environment," said CDC director Dr. Julie Gerberding, "but nevertheless, this is an astonishing public health achievement and I think really speaks to the removal of lead from gasoline."

Lead is one of the early successes of biomonitoring. Early concerns about lead were met with skepticism by some. Today no level is considered safe. According to a recent report in Science magazine, when the U.S. and other countries set out to reduce automobile emissions, models suggested lead levels in children would decrease slightly as gas lead levels declined.

Beginning in 1976, CDC began to check lead levels in children and adults. Tests revealed blood lead levels declined about tenfold more than expected between 1976 and 1980. These numbers prompted the Environmental Protection Agency to remove lead from gasoline more rapidly.

- The 2005 CDC report also showed that organochlorine pesticides eliminated from use in the 1980s -- the study names Aldrin, Endrin and Dieldrin -- did not show up in the humans studied.

"Since these chemicals have no longer been used as pesticides, we have virtually eliminated them from the human population," said Dr. Gerberding.

- Phthalates, plasticizers found in everything from plastics to vinyl to hairspray, were found at levels that demand further investigation.

The CDC warned that just because an environmental chemical appears in blood or urine does not mean it causes disease. "The toxicity of a chemical is related to its dose or concentration in addition to a person's susceptibility. Small amounts may be of no health consequence, whereas larger amounts may cause adverse health effects."

Not surprisingly, this caution was echoed by the American Chemistry Council, a trade group that represents 135 leading manufacturers in the chemical industry, a $450-billion enterprise in the U.S.

"The benefits of chemistry have helped all of us live longer and healthier lives," it said in response to the CDC report. "These advances should not be underestimated or undermined by unnecessarily alarming people about products that protect our health, keep us from harm and contribute to our well being."

The World Wildlife Fund, meanwhile, said the report addressed only "the tip of the iceberg" because it did not measure a range of chemicals including fire retardants.

The CDC studies are used to determine what chemicals are getting into people at what levels; to assess efforts to reduce certain exposures; to determine research priorities.

"Now that we can accurately measure these exposures in humans,"

Dr. Gerberding said, "it sets the stage for us to get the kind of information we really need: What does this mean for people? What does it mean for me, that this is present or absent?"

In some countries, biomonitoring studies prompted a phase-out of certain substances. Sweden, for example, banned fire retardants six years ago after breast milk monitoring found that levels were doubling every two to five years. Since that time, the corresponding curve of concentration in breast milk has gone down.

As early as this Thursday, the European Union is expected to vote on legislation that would overhaul chemical regulations in the EU and force businesses to prove their products are safe. The Registration, Evaluation and Authorization of Chemicals (REACH) legislation would phase out chemicals found to be carcinogenic.

Last Tuesday in Brussels, a group representing two million physicians urged members of the European Parliament to pass the legislation.

"We are in a serious situation," Dr. Dominique Belpomme told the legislators. "Some 75 per cent of cancers are due to mutations induced by environmental factors, mainly chemicals."

With all of this biomonitoring data, scientists are working to determine typical exposures within the general population. Once they establish "reference ranges," they can investigate for incidences of sickness when they find atypically high exposure rates.

Science magazine notes a 2001 case in which the state of Nevada asked CDC to study higher than normal leukemia rates in Fallon, Nevada. Of the 110 chemicals measured, tungsten and arsenic were found in much higher concentrations among all residents than in the rest of the population. The government has put tungsten on its priority list to determine if the metal increases cancer rates in animals.

CDC data also showed that eight per cent of women of childbearing age -- higher than anticipated -- have levels of mercury, a potent neurotoxin, above the level the government considers safe. They are now trying to determine how much mercury comes from fish, drinking water and other sources.

Mercury is known to cause health problems. So too lead. But others toxins found during biomonitoring are more controversial.

When the CDC said it had reported several phthalates -- ingredients used in nail polish, cosmetics and fragrances -- were higher in women aged 20 to 40 than in other groups, the Environmental Working Group launched a campaign to remove these compounds from cosmetics. Industry groups accused the EWG of needlessly scaring women. The CDC revised its findings, when a second report with a much larger sample size didn't find elevated levels among women of child-bearing age. In its third report, released in July, it suggests the compounds warrant further investigation.

It's also not known if PBDEs -- or polybrominated diphenyl ethers -- are toxic to humans. These compounds are widely used as flame retardants in mattresses, electrical equipment and other household products. Researchers found very high levels in mothers' breast milk.

As a result, the European Union and California banned the compounds. The manufacturer is voluntarily phasing them out of products, but it's still not known if they make anyone sick.

Others are trying to identify the source of such toxins.

The Harvard University School of Public Health is giving people backpacks that catch air particles as they move about their daily lives. They want to gauge where the greatest exposures are to chemicals. Their studies have shown that people spend 65 per cent of their time in their residences, 25 per cent in some other indoor environment, five to seven per cent in transit, and usually less than five per cent of their time outdoors.

Harvard is especially interested in indoor pollutants (fungi, dust mites, nitrogen dioxide, tobacco smoke, lead, asbestos, volatile organic compounds, formaldehyde, radon) because concentrations are many times greater than outdoor levels.

Instead of waiting for conclusive evidence, many activists say there is enough information to start banning chemicals. They argue that manufacturers should have to prove new chemicals are safe before they are approved for use. This requires embracing the precautionary principle, which argues that in the absence of conclusive evidence in face of a serious threat, we must still take action.

Charlotte Brody, of the California-based environmental group Commonweal, took part in the EWG body burden survey.

"The 11 Canadian volunteers join the 12 notable Californians that were biomonitored earlier this year and the 32 other people around the world who now know their toxic chemical levels," she said this week in an interview.

"I am one of those 32 people who were shocked to learn about the levels of mercury, phthalates, dioxins and other chemicals in me."

Even more shocking, she says, "no government and no polluting industry knows how these chemicals in people are connected to the growing number of people with cancer, learning disabilities, infertility, and asthma."

Brody's colleague, Davis Baltz, also took part in the biomonitoring survey. He says the Canadian report released last week, and others like it, shows "environmental contaminants have penetrated into every nook and cranny of our lives." He said people can try to reduce personal exposure, but it's up to governments to protect the people.

He called REACH proposals in Europe, which would overhaul the chemical industry, "the most significant environmental legislation in 30 years."

REACH would not only apply to chemicals manufactured in Europe, but also to chemicals imported into Europe, which means the U.S., Canada and other chemical makers would have to abide by its provisions. The centerpiece of REACH is the requirement that chemicals be tested before they are allowed into commerce, the wider environment, and as tests are increasingly showing, our bodies.

"This shifting of responsibility is a sea change in how chemicals are regulated and will create momentous market shifts encouraging safer alternatives and driving bad actors out," Mr. Baltz said this week.

He added that in light of Health Canada's recent decision to ban an increasing number of chemicals in cosmetics, it would be both appropriate and very helpful if Health Canada publicly signals its support for a strong REACH program. A vote on the legislation is expected as early as this Thursday in European Parliament.

Rick Smith, of Environmental Defence, also pointed to REACH and to the U.S.'s. proposed Child, Worker, and Consumer-Safe Chemicals Act, which he said has the potential to follow the European lead.

"When these frameworks become law, citizens of the EU and the U.S. will be granted a higher level of protection for their health and safety than Canadians," he said. He called on Canada to become a world leader, noting it is the third worst polluter in the industrialized world.

He said the opportunity exists to bring the regulation of toxic chemicals in Canada up to international standards. In Canada, the Canadian Environmental Protection Act regulates toxic chemicals used and produced by industry. "It's time to give this ineffective piece of legislation a makeover during its mandatory five-year review beginning in the fall of 2005."

Under CEPA, safety testing is not required for most chemicals.

"Industry is not held accountable for its chemicals. Pollution prevention and the phase-out of toxics is only granted lip service. The result is that as each year passes, increasing volumes of chemicals are entering the environment and making their way into Canadians."

Meanwhile, Health Canada told reporters the sample size of 11 people was small but they would look into it.

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