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The Body Toxic

Read this Q&A with Nena Baker, author of The Body Toxic: How the Hazardous Chemistry of Everyday Things Threatens Our Health and Well-Being.

A small New York Times article on the chemical contaminants found in everybody today inspired Nena Baker to leave daily journalism in 2003 and begin extensive research. “I started digging and soon discovered a situation unlike any I had encountered in all my years as an investigative reporter,” Baker writes in the introduction to her book The Body Toxic: How the Hazardous Chemistry of Everyday Things Threatens Our Health and Well-Being, to be released by North Point Press in August. The former investigative reporter for The Arizona Republic and The Oregonian spoke about her disturbing findings with AARP Bulletin Today’s Elizabeth Nolan Brown. Read an excerpt from The Body Toxic here.

Q. In The Body Toxic, you write about chemical “body burden” in humans. Can you explain this?

A. Researchers now have a means of identifying and quantifying chemical pollutants inside human beings. While we’ve often thought of pollution as something that ends up in the land, the air and rivers, we now know that these same pollutants are ending up in people. Body burden is the chemical load that’s unique to every individual.

Q. If scientists can measure an individual’s body burden, can they tell what effect it has on a person’s health?

A. That’s really the big question and controversy now: Do the levels that we can measure in humans have a negative effect, and if so, what are those effects? The idea for a long, long time in toxicology was that a little bit of something wouldn’t hurt you—the idea that “the dose makes the poison.” If you take a couple aspirin, it can be beneficial; but if you took the whole bottle, that would be a problem.

The body burden tests themselves just measure or quantify chemicals in human beings. What we know about the effects of these chemicals we mainly know from animal studies and, now, a very few preliminary human epidemiological studies. But what the science suggests is that exposures to certain chemicals—even at the very low levels seen in the average person—could be harmful.  

Q. What are the animal studies showing?

A. It depends on the chemical. For example, bisphenol A [BPA] has been in the news this last month; it’s a common ingredient in hard-plastic polycarbonate, the type of plastic that’s in reusable baby bottles and water bottles, the casing of laptop computers and the resin that lines some food cans. Scientists have noted that recent trends in human disease relate to the adverse effects observed in lab animals exposed to low levels of bisphenol A. Specific examples include prostate and breast cancer, genital abnormalities in baby boys, a decline in semen quality, early onset of puberty in girls, type 2 diabetes, obesity and even neuro-behavioral problems such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. The National Toxicology Program has just released a draft brief on BPA stating that it has some concern for young children and fetuses with regard to BPA exposure, because the data strongly suggest the possibility that exposure during development increases susceptibility to diseases later in life.

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