6 Risky Chemicals You're
Carrying in Your Body
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has released its
latest assessment of the chemicals we're all carrying around in
our bodies. The biomonitoring study is the most comprehensive
in the world, measuring 212 chemicals in the blood and urine of
8,000 Americans. That's more than 40% more chemicals than have
ever been tested for before.
The results: You can find 212 chemicals in the blood and urine
of Americans if you look for them.
But what does it mean for your health? The CDC highlighted a
few chemicals because they are both widespread -- found in all
or most people tested -- and potentially harmful. Here's a look
at what they are and how you can try to avoid them.
Better known as "flame retardants" PBDEs are used widely
in all sorts of goods -- from foam furniture to electronics --
to reduce fire risk. They also accumulate in human fat, and some
studies suggest they may harm the liver and kidneys as well as
the neurological system. Some states, including California, Washington
and Maine, have restricted the use of certain PBDEs deemed the
highest health risk. Short of such bans, avoiding them is difficult
because the chemicals are integrated into so many common products.
BPA, which is found in many plastics, in the lining of cans and
even coating many sales receipts, was found in more than 90% of
Americans tested. The health concerns about BPA are many and growing.
While BPA-free products are available, it can be difficult to
choose them unless you do research ahead of time. The Daily Green
has a list of many products containing BPA to help.
PFOA and other perfluorinated chemicals found in most Americans
are used to create heat-resistant and non-stick coatings on cookware,
as well as grease-resistant food packaging and stain-resistant
clothing. Studies have linked these chemicals to a range of health
problems, including infertility in women, and to liver, immune
system, developmental and reproductive problems in lab animals.
Avoiding them can be difficult, but avoiding products that contain
them is a first step.
Formed when carbohydrates are cooked at high temperatures (French
fries anyone?) and as a byproduct of tobacco smoke, acrylamide
and its metabolites are extremely common in Americans. While the
risks of low-level exposure aren't well known, high-level exposure
has caused cancer and neurological problems in lab animals and
workers, respectively. Avoiding it in food comes down to food
choice, storage and preparation, according to the Food and Drug
Administration. Examples include boiling or baking potatoes, rather
than frying them, or soaking them in water before frying; toasting
bread only lightly; and moderating the drinking of coffee, which
gets acrylamide in the roasting process.
The main source of mercury -- a potent neurotoxin that can lead
to permanent brain damage if young children or fetuses are exposed
-- continues to be contaminated fish. To avoid mercury, you have
to educate yourself about which fish are safe. Several guides
exist to help make a smart choice at the fish counter.
This gasoline additive has been phased out of use in the U.S.,
in favor of ethanol, but it still can be detected widely in American's
bodies. (It has contaminated many drinking water supplies.) While
the health risks are not well defined, studies have linked it
to a variety of potential problems, including neurological and
The good news in the CDC report is that effective regulation
can really reduce harmful exposures to chemicals. Testing reveals
that secondhand smoke exposure has declined 70%, for instance,
and lead poisoning (as defined by the CDC; some scientists think
the acceptable level is too high) now affects less than 2% of
children aged 1-5.
The bad news is that, not only are Americans being exposed to
many potentially harmful chemicals, in mixtures that are totally
untested, but even this most comprehensive testing regimen accounts
for less than 1% of the chemicals most Americans are exposed to
regularly. The Environmental Protection Agency has identified
at least 6,000 chemicals that Americans are routinely exposed
Until and unless U.S. regulation of chemicals changes, chemicals
will continue to be used in commerce before rigorous safety testing.
That means it's up to consumers to avoid chemicals they deem risky.
December 22, 2009