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Sorry, but We've Got Really Bad Chemistry

Steve Lopez
Points West

June 8, 2005

The results are in, and it turns out I'm a walking cocktail of toxic chemicals. I've got a jigger of lead in me, a splash of flame retardant and a dash of DDT.

But none of this came as a surprise, and before you take pity, let me remind you that your organs are probably marinating nicely too. We've all ingested and inhaled chemicals in our lifetimes, and some of them linger in the body for decades.

What's different in my case is that I've got the evidence right here in front of me, having participated in a bio-monitoring study two months ago with 10 other Californians who gave blood, hair and urine samples.

To be honest, there's little evidence of links between chemicals and specific diseases, and we don't know much about safe levels of exposure. Still, it was a little unnerving to read that I had the second-highest level of mercury among the 11 people tested. Have I eaten too much tuna?

Possibly, but my concern about mercury poisoning quickly faded when I ran my finger down the chart and realized I was leader of the pack, by a long shot, when it came to another chemical.

Ever heard of phthalates?

The chemical compounds, used in soap and shampoo and as a softener in plastic products, have been associated with cancers in rats and abnormalities in the reproductive systems of babies. In my group of 11 human guinea pigs, my mono-ethyl phthalate count one of several phthalates we were tested for was more than 40 times the median.

"It's surprising, but not unheard of," said Charlotte Brody of Commonweal. The Northern California health and environmental research group sponsored the study to call attention to our growing exposure to industrial chemicals, many of which are only partially tested before they're on the market.

Brody said there are suspected links between mono-ethyl phthalate and pulmonary problems, as well as low sperm counts. Seems to me I'm breathing just fine, though. And I've got a daughter who's not quite 2. It's quite likely my high count was a blip, because phthalates accumulate and pass through the body quickly, unlike, say, the DDT that's been in me since the pesticide was banned nearly 30 years ago.

"It could have been from something you were exposed to in the 48 hours before we tested you," Brody said. "It could have been in a deodorant, hair gel, anything with a fragrance. It could have been in a food container let's say a plastic wrap." One problem, Brody told me, is that you won't always find mono-ethyl phthalate listed as an ingredient.

"It might just say 'fragrance,' " she said, so you've got no idea that what you're smearing under your arms could lower your sperm count.

I checked out my long-lasting stick deodorant and read the ingredients. Dipropylene glycol, water, propylene glycol, sodium stearate, PPG-3products myristyl ether, triclosan, tetrasodium EDTA, hydroxide, D&C violet No. 2, D&C green No. 6, and voila! fragrance. So that could be it. Or it could have been my $1.99 shampoo and conditioner in one.

I'd never given it much thought, but you have to put a lot of faith in the chemical and hygiene industries along with federal regulatory agencies in exchange for "high endurance 24-hour odor protection." And now that I think about it, I had plenty of reason to be suspicious of a shampoo that promised "healthy and lustrous" hair even before I knew my phthalate level.

I also tested slightly above the median for perfluorooctane sulfonate, which used to be in Scotchgard and is still in textiles, leather protection products and cleaning agents. The suspected carcinogen may stay with us longer than DDT and PCBs.

So should I be worried about any of this?

I don't intend to lose any sleep, and far as I can tell, there's no need for me to go running to the nearest emergency room. The folks who sponsored the bio-monitoring cautioned us against being alarmed, even if the results "may be upsetting." As UC Riverside toxicologist Robert Krieger said when I last wrote about this subject, hard evidence of chemicals in our bodies is meaningless because we don't know what levels pose a health risk, and we may never know. Krieger has questioned the need for state Sen. Deborah Ortiz's (D-Sacramento) proposal to set up voluntary testing of California residents to monitor the presence and concentration of certain chemicals.

The bill has been viewed suspiciously by the California Chamber of Commerce, which is hyperventilating about the possibility that it could lead to chemicals being banned. Four other bills to regulate chemicals are pending in Sacramento, including one that would ban certain phthalates, calling into question the safety of everything from rubber ducks to plastic water bottles.

Are Commonweal and the authors of these bills overreacting? The correct answer is that we don't know, and that uncertainty is part of what's driving their efforts.

The current federal regulatory philosophy is that chemicals are safe until proven dangerous, unlike the approach in Europe, where more chemicals are tested for human toxicity before they're allowed on the market.

Mark McCally, a New York physician who conducted an earlier bio-monitoring study and reviewed the results of the one I participated in, said roughly 1,500 new chemicals come onto the market each year. Like the 70,000 that preceded them since World War II, "some of them are not tested at all and some are only partially tested" for their possible effect on humans.

"The chemicals found in you were not present in your grandfather or mine," said McCally.

My problem is that I'm suspicious by nature, perhaps because my mother's people come from a southern Italian island where they grew up looking over their shoulder.

Despite the many modern conveniences made possible by chemicals who can find fault with the idea behind Teflon, even if it did eventually raise health concerns? I have trouble trusting the chemical industry any more than I ever trusted the drug-manufacturing and cigarette industries, all of which have excelled at buying off politicians and keeping regulators at bay.

The bigger threat with chemical companies isn't what they aren't telling us, but what they don't know. Humans are in greater contact with more chemicals and chemical combinations than at any time in history, and as our exposure grows, so do the rates of an alarming number of cancers and developmental diseases.

Why are rates of breast cancer, testicular cancer, lymphocytic leukemia, autism and asthma on the rise?

Is it from cellphones, smog, over-the-counter drugs or stain-resistant rugs?

We don't know. And to be honest, I would rather not die from being terrified of life. It can be exhausting trying to figure out what's worse for you the mercury in tuna or PCBs in farm-raised salmon.

But as Brody says, we can be much smarter about the testing and refinement of chemicals and our exposure to them, and we ought to be capable of stain-resistant rug products that don't leave chemical deposits in children for years.

"The opportunity in all of this is not to deny ourselves these advantages and technological improvements chemicals have brought about, but to make them in the least toxic ways," he said. Until then, maybe I'll watch the tuna, and look for a deodorant without "fragrance."

Speaking of health, I'll be away for a week or so to deal with a problem unrelated to my 24-hour odor protection. The doctor says the sinus surgery is quite safe, but he did warn me of the remote possibility that if he hiccups while wielding the laser, it's possible my brain or eye could be nicked.

If I come back to work and start telling you what a beautiful building the Rog Mahal is, you'll know he nicked my eye.

If I come back to work and start telling you what a terrific job Gov. Schwarzenegger is doing, you'll know he nicked my brain.

Also, when I return I'll be switching from three regularly scheduled columns weekly to two Wednesday and Sunday. I'll throw in Friday columns on occasion, but otherwise plan to spend more time getting out and about, doing more research, and traveling beyond Los Angeles more frequently.

As always, your column suggestions are welcome and appreciated.


Reach the columnist at steve.lopez@latimes.com and read previous columns at http://www.latimes.com/lopez 



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