San Jose Mercury News [Printer-friendly version] September 11, 2006 TOXIC EXPOSURE BILL CLEARS HURDLES [Rachel's introduction: The California legislature has passed a bill to create an "early warning system" by measuring toxic chemicals in the bodies of California residents. The bill now sits on Governor Schwarzenegger's desk, awaiting his signature or veto. "By monitoring, we can provide the kind of data we need to better understand links between chemical exposure and rates of disease, and communities that are disproportionately affected," said Janet Nudelman of the Breast Cancer Fund.] By Paul Rogers Is there a connection between toxic chemicals and high rates of breast cancer in the Bay Area? Do pesticides build up in the bodies of Salinas farmworkers? Do people living near oil refineries in Martinez or along freeways in San Jose absorb harmful levels of air pollution? California may be on its way to finding out. A bill that would set up the nation's first statewide program to measure exposure to toxic chemicals by testing thousands of volunteers has overcome industry opposition and reached the desk of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. The bill, SB 1379, by state Sen. Don Perata, D-Oakland, and Sen. Deborah Ortiz, D-Sacramento, would require the state Department of Health Services to establish a program for residents who agree to have their blood, urine and other body fluids tested for toxic chemicals and other pollutants. The program would be based on an increasingly popular science known as "biomonitoring." It seeks to track hundreds of potentially harmful contaminants -- such as lead, mercury, DDT, PCBs and flame retardants -- and learn more about their health risks by measuring how much, and in whom, they accumulate. Simply because chemicals can be detected in humans doesn't necessarily mean they are causing harm, scientists note. Virtually every American is exposed to a wide variety of chemical products -- from fumes at gas pumps to nail polish to garden fertilizer -- usually in small amounts with little or no ill effects. But high levels of some toxins have been linked to increased risks for cancer, birth defects, asthma and developmental disabilities. And much remains unknown. "We monitor the air, the water and land for chemical contaminants, but we don't measure the chemical contaminants in people," said Janet Nudelman, director of program and policy for the Breast Cancer Fund, a non-profit San Francisco group that focuses on environmental risks for cancer. "By doing that, we can provide the kind of data we need to better understand links between chemical exposure and rates of disease, and communities that are disproportionately affected." If Schwarzenegger signs the bill, the new law would set up a nine- member panel of experts appointed by the governor and legislative leaders to design a program. =================================================== Sidebar: CREATING TOXINS DATABASE ** Senate Bill 1379 would set up the nation's first statewide program to measure exposure to toxic chemicals by testing thousands of volunteers. ** The program would track hundreds of potentially harmful contaminants -- such as lead, mercury, DDT, PCBs and flame retardants -- and learn more about their health risks by measuring how much, and in whom, they accumulate. ** The state Department of Health Services would set up the program for residents who agree to have their blood, urine and other body fluids tested for toxic chemicals and other pollutants. =================================================== Voluntary subjects Nudelman said she expects about 2,000 volunteers representing varying ages, ethnicities and regions would be sought out first for testing to compile statewide baseline information. Afterward, specialized studies could be conducted. Examples include measuring chemical levels in people living near the ports of Oakland or Los Angeles, where ships and trucks emit high levels of soot. Costs would total about $7 million a year, according to the Assembly Appropriations Committee. Summaries of the findings -- but not individual test results -- would be made public every two years, starting in 2010. For much of this year, the farm, oil, chemical and manufacturing industries fought the bill after Schwarzenegger vetoed a similar version in 2005. The governor and industry critics had said it didn't include enough scientific checks and balances, and risked misleading people by overstating health risks from minuscule levels of exposure. But two weeks ago, industry withdrew its opposition. "If we are going to do this, we should do it thoughtfully, professionally and scientifically," said Margaret Bruce, director of environmental programs for the Silicon Valley Leadership Group, an industry group in San Jose that dropped its opposition. "The whole program was based around an activist perception of what would be important, rather than a scientist's," she said. "A biomonitoring program will give useful information if it gives comparable, statistically valid data." Schwarzenegger's staff negotiated changes with Perata and Ortiz. Those improved the bill, Bruce said. One change required that the panel organizing the program be made up of experts with backgrounds in epidemiology, biostatistics, toxicology and other disciplines. Similar efforts failed three years in a row after industry also opposed the funding sources. First, the bill was to be paid for by a cigarette tax, then fees on industry. Now the money would come from the state general fund. Re-election plays in Nudelman, however, insisted that the changes were relatively minor. She said the California Farm Bureau Federation, American Chemistry Council, California Chamber of Commerce and others dropped opposition because they realized Schwarzenegger has made environmentalism a key part of his re-election campaign and is likely to sign the bill. The bill is supported by the California Nurses Association, the American Medical Association, large labor unions, and environmental groups such as the Sierra Club. Since 2000, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control has conducted national biomonitoring studies. The last results in 2005 surveyed 2,200 people for 148 chemicals. The CDC found some chemicals such as DDT, a pesticide banned in 1972, or pthalates, used to soften plastic, are widely found in Americans. But it did not measure the health threats. Dr. Richard Jackson, former head of the CDC's National Center for Environmental Health, supports California's bill. He recalled studying pesticides and farmworkers for years. "Over and over again the problem we were dealing with is that we really didn't have any idea what people were exposed to," said Jackson, now an adjunct professor at the University of California- Berkeley. 'We had no way of measuring or knowing." He predicted other states will copy California. "Biomonitoring gives you a chance to do a snapshot and look at levels across the state," Jackson said. "Do we have hot spots? Are there people we should be looking at? Do our regulations work? Unless you can measure it, you can't give people decent advice." Contact Paul Rogers at email@example.com or (408) 920-5045.