by: Ruth Rosen
San Francisco Chronicle
Feb. 3, 2003
WHEN MICHAEL LERNER volunteered to give blood and urine samples to medical researchers, he figured they'd only find a few chemicals in his body. After all, Lerner, the president and founder of Commonweal, a health and environmental research institute in Marin County, has lived in Bolinas for 20 years, eaten a healthy diet and avoided exposure to industrial chemicals.
He was wrong. Researchers found his body polluted with 101 industrial toxins and penetrated by elevated levels of arsenic and mercury.
Scientists call such contamination a person's "body burden."
Lerner was one of nine people -- five of whom live and work in the Bay Areas -- who were tested for 210 chemicals commonly found in consumer products and industrial pollution. Mt. Sinai School of Medicine in New York, the Environmental Working Group of Oakland and Washington, and Commonweal collaborated on this innovative study of the body burden.
At press conferences held in San Francisco and Washington, D.C., last week, researchers revealed these shocking results: On average, each person had 50 or more chemicals linked to cancer in humans and lab animals, considered toxic to the brain and nervous system or known to interfere with the hormone and reproductive systems. (The Environmental Working Group's Web site www.ewg.org/reports/bodyburden/ features biographies and toxic profiles for each person as well as the kind of products that contain such chemicals.)
Lerner was astounded. "Being tested yourself brings the body burden home in a very personal way." For years, he has lived with a condition that causes a hand tremor. Now he suspects why. "Mercury and arsenic both cause tremor, so I've stopped eating all fish that have high mercury levels."
Lerner's wife, Sharyle Patton -- co-director of the Collaborative on Health and Environment -- also participated in the study. To her surprise, the Bolinas resident had as many toxins as people who have lived in cities. In fact, she had the highest levels of dioxins and PCBs -- both highly toxic substances -- of anyone in the test group. "What we learned," says Patton, "is that we all live in the same chemical neighborhood."
Lerner, who has devoted his life to promoting the health of people and the planet, hopes that such bio-monitoring tests will become routine and affordable. "Body burden tests," he says, "are the thermometer that gives us our body's chemical fever. In a prudent world, no household would be without a chemical thermometer in the medicine cabinet."
But individual tests only provide information; they don't reduce our contamination. "The truth is," Lerner says, "we are unwilling participants in a huge chemical experiment, which would never be permitted by the FDA if these chemicals came to us as drugs. But because these chemicals enter us from industrial and agricultural sources, they are not subject to testing that would ensure our safety."
The report therefore calls for "the reform of the Toxics Substance Control Act, under which chemical companies may put new compounds on the market without any studies of their effect on people or the environment."
Andrea Martin, founder and former executive director of the San Francisco's Breast Cancer Fund, strongly supports the recommendation. Martin is a breast cancer survivor who climbed Mount Fuji in 2000 with 500 breast cancer survivors and supporters. More recently, she underwent surgery to remove a brain tumor unrelated to breast cancer.
Martin, who also gave samples to the Body Burden project, was stunned by the results. "I was completely blown away," she told me. "There were 95 toxins, 59 of which were carcinogens."
Martin has never worked with or near chemicals. But she now wonders whether her formative years may have turned her into a self-described "walking toxic waste site."
When she grew up in Memphis, she and her friends loved to get splashed by the streams of insecticide sprayed by trucks that roamed the neighborhood. Later, she indulged a passion for water skiing -- in lakes clouded by chemical pollutants.
"Where did I get all these PCBs and dioxins?" she asks. "I'll probably never know."
In fact, no one is sure how industrial and synthetic chemical residues -- even long-banned pesticides such as DDT -- end up in our bodies. But scientists suspect that chemicals first pollute the air, soil, food and water, then climb through the food chain and finally accumulate in our blood, fat, mother's milk, semen and urine.
I asked Martin if she regrets getting tested. "At first, I was really angry.
But I believe knowledge is power. We're starting to learn that pollution isn't only in the air, soil and water; it's also in us."
She also wonders whether her chemical body burden has caused her cancers. "We'll never know," she says, "because right now chemical companies don't have to prove the safety of their products and no government agency has ever studied the health risks that can be caused by chemical toxins."
That may change. Last week, the Centers for Disease Control also issued its second report card on the body burden of chemicals carried by Americans. Using data from 2,500 anonymous donors, the CDC provided further evidence that chemical residues have polluted the bodies of most of us.
Although no one yet knows what amount of trace chemicals are harmful for human health, scientists and environmental health activists worry about the cumulative assault on our health.
No one wants his or her body to be another pollution site. Still, lobbyists for the chemical industry resist further regulation. "As a result," says Martin, "we're living in a toxic stew and they are, quite literally, getting away with murder."
©2003 San Francisco Chronicle
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