Our Chemical Body Burden
UPdate Fall 2007
Our bodies are truly amazing. The fact that you are alive today means you have inherited an unbroken chain of being that stretches right back to the first single-celled organisms, 4,000 million years ago that’s 4 billion years.
Your body contains between 50 and 75 trillion cells, and each cellular nucleus contains up to 25,000 genes. You breathe in and out 23,000 times a day from the same air that was breathed by the dinosaurs, and your body is 60% water, from the same ever-recycling water that is shared by every being in the world.
When you consider this amazing complexity, it is remarkable how healthy most of us are. When your body receives the nutrients it needs, breathes clean air, drinks pure water, and gets the exercise needed to keep your oxygen pumping and your muscles fit, it should last a hundred years.
It is very disturbing, therefore, to learn that our bodies are being contaminated with a burden of toxic chemicals. In 2003, the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York conducted a study with the Environmental Working Group (EWG) in which nine healthy volunteers, none of whom worked with chemicals, had their blood and urine tested. They found 167 industrial chemicals, including:
76 chemicals linked to cancer in humans or animals (average 53 per person)
94 chemicals that are toxic to the brain and nervous system (average 62)
•86 chemicals that interfere with the hormone system (average 58)
79 chemicals associated with birth defects or abnormal development (average 55)
• 77 chemicals that are toxic to the reproductive system (average 55)
77 chemicals that are toxic to the immune system (average 53)
The chemicals came from everyday things such as adhesives, pesticides, food additives,
fire retardants, hair sprays, perfumes, lubricants, brake fluid, varnishes, paints,
dyes, and cleaning products. A Canadian study came up with similar results, as
did a European study including 47 Members of the EU Parliament from 17 nations.
When the EWG looked at the breast milk of 20 nursing mothers, it found levels
of brominated fire retardants (PDBEs) from furniture foam, computers, and televisions
that were 75 times higher than the average found in recent European studies.
The PDBEs accumulate in the food chain and human tissues, and adversely affect
brain development and the thyroid.
In 2004, when they looked at the umbilical cord blood of ten newborn babies,
they found that 287 chemicals had passed through their mothers’ placentas, averaging
The US Centers for Disease Control is also monitoring for environmental chemicals
in our bodies. In 2005, as well as finding similar results to the other studies,
they found that children had higher levels than adults for residues from second
hand smoke, for some pesticides and chemicals such as phthalates that leach from
The good news is that they observed a steep decline in lead in the children’s
blood, following regulations to remove it from gasoline and paint, and in second
hand smoke residues, following smoking bans. The bad news is that these studies
do not include the effects of ionizing radiation, a known carcinogen that is
adding to our body burden.
When the chemicals are not removed, however, they often contribute to cancer.
In 2003 a Belgian study found that women with breast cancer were five times more
likely than healthy women to have residues of the pesticide DDT in their blood.
In 2006 a US study found that men whose bodies were contaminated with PCB 153
were 30 times more likely to have prostate cancer than those who were not contaminated.
Why is this being allowed? A lack of regulatory oversight and constant pressure
from industry not to interfere have combined to allow over 100,000 novel chemicals
to be used, most of which have never been examined for their health impacts (see
p. 30). When chemicals are studied, they are almost never studied in combination
with other chemicals, and rarely at the minute levels of contamination that can
undermine the body’s exquisitely sensitive hormonal systems.
We should be outraged that this is being allowed. Hazardous substances linked
to cancer and other health problems are being found in the tissue of almost every
living creature on Earth, and it is up to us to do something to stop this toxic
Reprinted with permission from Cancer: 101 Solutions to a Preventable Epidemic,
New Society Press, 2007
Review of Cancer: 101 Solutions at www.environmentalhealth.ca/fall07cancer101
Additional excerpts from Cancer: 101 Solutions to a Preventable Epidemic
Cancer and lifestyle: looking at the whole picture www.environmentalhealth.ca/fall07lifestyle
Cancer and the animal world: Learning the lessons www.environmentalhealth.ca/fall07whales