Chemicals in Our Bodies
By Jordana Miller CNN-10-07
NEW YORK (CNN) -- Michelle Hammond
and Jeremiah Holland were intrigued when a
friend at the Oakland Tribune asked them and
their two young children to take part in a
cutting-edge study to measure the industrial
chemicals in their bodies.
Tests showed that
Rowan, at 18 months,
had high levels of a
chemical in his
bloodstream that can
dysfunction in rats.
"In the beginning, I wasn't worried at
all; I was fascinated," Hammond, 37,
But that fascination soon changed to
fear, as tests revealed that their children
-- Rowan, then 18 months, and Mikaela, then
5 -- had chemical exposure levels up to
seven times those of their parents.
"[Rowan's] been on this planet for 18
months, and he's loaded with a chemical I've
never heard of," Holland, 37, said. "He had
two to three times the level of flame
retardants in his body that's been known to
cause thyroid dysfunction in lab rats."
The technology to test for these flame
retardants -- known as polybrominated
diphenyl ethers (PBDEs) -- and other
industrial chemicals is less than 10 years
old. Environmentalists call it "body burden"
testing, an allusion to the chemical
"burden," or legacy of toxins, running
through our bloodstream. Scientists refer to
this testing as "biomonitoring."
Most Americans haven't heard of body
burden testing, but it's a hot topic among
environmentalists and public health experts
who warn that the industrial chemicals we
come into contact with every day are
accumulating in our bodies and endangering
our health in ways we have yet to
See which household
products contain industrial chemicals »
"We are the humans in a dangerous and
unnatural experiment in the United States,
and I think it's unconscionable," said Dr.
Leo Trasande, assistant director of the
Center for Children's Health and the
Environment at the Mount Sinai Medical
Center in New York City.
Watch Anderson Cooper
get his blood drawn for testing »
Dr. Trasande says that industrial toxins
could be leading to more childhood disease
"We are in an epidemic of environmentally
mediated disease among American children
today," he said. "Rates of asthma, childhood
cancers, birth defects and developmental
disorders have exponentially increased, and
it can't be explained by changes in the
human genome. So what has changed? All the
chemicals we're being exposed to."
Elizabeth Whelan, president of the
American Council on Science and Health, a
public health advocacy group, disagrees.
"My concern about this trend about
measuring chemicals in the blood is it's
leading people to believe that the mere
ability to detect chemicals is the same as
proving a hazard, that if you have this
chemical, you are at risk of a disease, and
that is false," she said. Whelan contends
that trace levels of industrial chemicals in
our bodies do not necessarily pose health
In 2004, the Hollands became the first
intact nuclear family in the United States
to undergo body burden testing. Rowan, at
just 1½ years old, became the youngest child
in the U.S. to be tested for chemical
exposure with this method.
Rowan's extraordinarily high levels of
PBDEs frightened his parents and left them
with a looming question: If PBDEs are
causing neurological damage to lab rats,
could they be doing the same thing to Rowan?
The answer is that no one knows for sure. In
the three years since he was tested, no
developmental problems have been found in
Rowan's neurological system.
Dr. Trasande said children up to six
years old are most at risk because their
vital organs and immune system are still
developing and because they depend more
heavily on their environments than adults
"Pound for pound, they eat more food,
they drink more water, they breathe in more
air," he said. "And so [children] carry a
higher body burden than we do."
Studies on the health effects of PBDEs
are only just beginning, but many countries
have heeded the warning signs they see in
animal studies. Sweden banned PBDEs in 1998.
The European Union banned most PBDEs in
2004. In the United States, the sole
manufacturer of two kinds of PBDEs
voluntarily stopped making them in 2004. A
third kind, Deca, is still used in the U.S.
in electrical equipment, construction
material, mattresses and textiles.
Another class of chemicals that showed up
in high levels in the Holland children is
known as phthalates. These are plasticizers,
the softening agents found in many plastic
bottles, kitchenware, toys, medical devices,
personal care products and cosmetics. In lab
animals, phthalates have been associated
with reproductive defects, obesity and early
puberty. But like PBDEs, little is known
about what they do to humans and
Russ Hauser, an associate professor of
environmental and occupational epidemiology
at the Harvard School of Public Health, has
done some of the few human studies on
low-level phthalate exposure. His
preliminary research shows that phthalates
may contribute to
infertility in men. A study led by
Shanna Swan of the University of Rochester
in New York shows that prenatal exposure to
phthalates in males may be associated with
impaired testicular function and with a
defect that shortens the space between the
genitals and anus.
The Environmental Protection Agency does
not require chemical manufacturers to
conduct human toxicity studies before
approving their chemicals for use in the
market. A manufacturer simply has to submit
paperwork on a chemical, all the data that
exists on that chemical to date, and wait 90
days for approval.
Jennifer Wood, an EPA spokeswoman,
insists the agency has the tools to ensure
"If during the new-chemical review
process, EPA determines that it may have
concerns regarding risk or exposure, the EPA
has the authority to require additional
testing," she said. EPA records show that of
the 1,500 new chemicals submitted each year,
the agency asks for additional testing
roughly 10 percent of the time. The EPA has
set up a voluntary testing program with the
major chemical manufacturers to
retroactively test some of the 3,000 most
widely used chemicals.
Dr. Trasande believes that is too little,
"The problem with these tests is that
they are really baseline tests that don't
measure for the kind of subtle health
problems that we're seeing," Dr. Trasande
In the three years since her family went
through body burden testing, Michelle
Hammond has become an activist on the issue.
She's testified twice in the California
legislature to support a statewide body
burden testing program, a bill that passed
last year. Michelle also speaks to various
public health groups about her experience,
taking Mikaela, now 8, and Rowan, now 5,
with her. So far, her children show no
health problems associated with the
industrial chemicals in their bodies.
"I'm angry at my government for failing
to regulate chemicals that are in mass
production and in consumer products."
Hammond says. "I don't think it should have
to be up to me to worry about what's in my