"What that told me is that no matter what I tried to do, the plumes
of chemicals that we are passing in and out of everyday give us
exposure," said Baltz, who works for Commonweal, an environmental group
in Bolinas, Calif. Commonweal and the Washington-based Environmental
Working Group funded tests for Baltz and eight others at $5,000 apiece.
For decades, researchers have sampled the air, land and sea to
measure pollution from power plants, factories and automobiles. More
recently, they have expressed concern about mounting "e-waste" —
discarded tech gadgets that contain flame retardants, lead and other
But there's been trouble determining precisely how much pollution
gets absorbed by humans.
Now, in a process called biomonitoring, scientists are sampling
urine, blood and mother's milk to catalogue the pollutants accumulating
in humans. They call the results "body burden."
Though the tests are yielding scary lists of contaminants found in
the body, their links to disease are less clear. Nonetheless, proponents
say such testing will help researchers learn what role the environment
plays in causing disease and how to treat it.
Many chemicals such as PCB and DDT, both banned decades ago, remain
in the environment for years and build up in the body over a lifetime.
It's not a new phenomenon. Rachel Carson wrote about the poisons in
her 1962 book "Silent Spring," which is widely credited for
jump-starting the environmental movement.
But until now, researchers were left mostly to guess about exactly
how much and how many of the toxins lingered in our bodies.
Few of the estimated 75,000 chemicals found in the United States have
been tested for their health effects, Baltz and other biomonitoring
proponents say. By looking directly in the human body, they hope to
catalogue the environmental influences that may cause disease.
Already, several studies have been completed:
- In March, California researchers reported that San Francisco-area
women have three to 10 times as much chemical flame retardant in their
breast tissue as European or Japanese women.
- Indiana University researchers reported at the same time that
levels in Indiana and California women and infants were 20 times higher
than those in Sweden and Norway, which recently banned flame retardant.
- The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention earlier this year
released data from 2,500 volunteers tested for 116 pollutants and found
such chemicals as mercury, uranium and cotinine, a chemical broken down
The CDC also found that black children have twice the level of
cotinine than other children, implying they were exposed to more
secondhand smoke than their peers of other races.
Meanwhile, Mexican-American children were found to have three times
the amount of a chemical derived from DDT compared with other children.
Scientists suspect that Mexico and Latin America countries may still be
using the banned chemical.
Next month, state Sen. Deborah Ortiz plans to renew calls for
California's polluters to finance testing of contaminants in mother's
"This will allow women to better make informed decision about their
health," said Ortiz, a Democrat. "And the information will help
researchers and public health officials."
But some fear that biomonitoring results could be misinterpreted and
frighten new mothers from breast feeding their babies.
"We are clearly concerned about what effects the stories of
biomonitoring will have," said Barbara Brenner, executive director of
the San Francisco-based Breast Cancer Action nonprofit advocacy group.
"Any rational woman will say to herself, `Should I be breast feeding?'"
Others see political motives behind some of the tests.
"Everyone's exposed to substances and there's no evidence that the
low levels people are exposed to are harming anybody," said Steven
Milloy, author of "Junk Science Judo: Self Defense Against Health Scares
and Scams." "It's a waste of time and money that only serves to scare
Milloy noted that despite all the chemicals, the overall U.S.
population is living longer and healthier.
Although the tests conducted on Baltz and other Commonweal
volunteers, including public television journalist Bill Moyers, are too
expensive for most people, proponents believe costs will go down as
technology advances. Moyers' body had traces of 84 toxins, including
lead and a byproduct of mercury.
There's still a debate among advocates over which of the 75,000
chemicals to specifically look for when biomonitoring. And even when
chemicals are found, there's little an individual can do.
But Baltz said the knowledge can at least help consumers make more
informed choices over what they eat.
"Since we don't have a whole lot of control over most of the
environment, we can take charge with the food we eat," he said. "There
are few places where you can exercise such power than controlling what