—Excerpt from The Body Toxic by Nena Baker, to be published in August by North Point Press, a division of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. Copyright (c) 2008 by Nena Baker. All rights reserved.
Approaching the age of sixty, Sharyle Patton has the trim build and spirited glow of a woman who pays attention to diet and exercise. She’s always taken good care of herself, avoiding the pitfalls of drugs, booze, and tobacco. And it shows. Patton displays the energy of a woman half her age as an activist on issues of health and the environment. In 2001 in Stockholm, as a leader of a network of 350 nongovernmental organizations, Patton helped guide the UN’s Persistent Organic Pollutants treaty, which calls for the worldwide elimination of a “dirty dozen” list of chemical contaminants considered among the world’s most hazardous.
Intellectually, she understands as well as anyone the ubiquitous nature of chemical pollutants. But she didn’t expect the emotional jolt she felt when she learned that her body was polluted with traces of 105 chemicals linked in animal studies to a list of devastating health effects including cancer, disruption of the hormone system, birth deformities, and neurological impairments. “I don’t live next door to a refinery or an incinerator or some kind of factory,” said Patton, whose blood and urine were screened for chemical pollutants after she volunteered for a study conducted by Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York. “I’ve been careful and it hasn’t made a bit of difference in terms of the chemicals that are in my body.”
It turns out that what’s in Patton is in every one of us, too. Everyone, everywhere now carries a dizzying array of chemical contaminants, the byproducts of modern industry and innovation. These toxic substances accumulate in our fat, bones, blood and organs, or pass through us in breast milk, urine, feces, sweat, semen, hair, and nails. Scientists studying pollutants in people—including researchers at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta—call the phenomenon “chemical body burden.” It is the consequence of womb-to-womb exposures to substances so common in our daily lives that we never stop to consider them.
That cute yellow bath toy your child or grandchild loves to chew? It’s likely to contain plasticizers known as phthalates, which are part of a large family of industrial chemicals linked to impaired sperm quality in animals. That TV you spend hours in front of? It’s probably made with a neurotoxic chemical flame retardant known as polybrominated diphenyl ether (PBDE).
All this makes Sharyle Patton very sad and very angry. “Our air, water, soil, and our own bodies are being used as a chemical sewer system,” she said. Little is known about the health effects of our toxic bodies, and the regulatory system enables that to happen. “At a minimum, we have a right to know what’s in us.”
Body burden studies help. Yet Patton worries, as we all should, about the damage done. Through the miracles of modern chemistry and society’s craving for convenience, we’ve fundamentally altered, in less that a century, a biological balance that evolved over millions of years. And we don’t know the full costs.