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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.

Q. You point out in your book that more than 80,000 chemical substances are registered for commercial use in the United States—and about 10,000 of these appear in things we use every day—but the EPA has no data on the potential human health effects of the vast majority of these chemicals.

A. Well, the way our system works in the United States, a chemical is considered safe until it’s proven harmful, so it’s out there for years and years until a body of evidence demonstrates the harm it has already caused. There are a number of public health advocates and environmentalists and even politicians who believe that this is a backwards system, that industry should first have to demonstrate a product is safe before it can be put into commerce. But under current law, the EPA is not authorized to gather the basic toxicity data; it must rely on chemical companies to provide this kind of data. As recently as last year, the U.S. General Accountability Office recommended that Congress amend the law—known as the Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976—to give the EPA more power to collect this type of basic information.

Q. So, what should Congress do?

A. It has to revisit the Toxic Substances Control Act, which hasn’t been amended since it was passed more than 30 years ago, despite the mountains of new scientific information we have about industrial chemicals and their hazardous effects. And I think Congress has to empower the EPA to gather the basic information it needs to do what most Americans think it already does, which is to weed out the most hazardous of these substances.

Q. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention began tracking pesticides and chemical pollutants in U.S. citizens in 2001. What is their research showing?

A. There’s been some progress in reducing people’s exposure levels to chemicals that we’ve been concerned about for a really long time—such as  lead and dioxins and PCBs. The not-so-good news is that the majority of the chemicals that are now being measured—we really don’t know for sure what kind of health effects they may have.   

Q. Even if we did know the health effects, would it make a difference?

A. Yes, because individuals can use the information to decide if they want to take steps in their own life to try to limit exposures. And if they’re concerned about this—for themselves and their children and their grandchildren—they may want to call for changes that we can make as a society through legislative action and laws.

Q. What steps can individuals take to reduce chemical exposures?

A.  Here’s what I’ve started doing in my own life. I buy and eat organic foods whenever possible, because they’re pesticide-free. I don’t eat microwave popcorn anymore, which is something I used to enjoy, because I learned that the chemicals that coat the inside of the packaging—they’re called fluorotelomers—have a very long half-life in humans. I don’t use plastic food containers, because they can leach hazardous substances when they’re heated in the microwave; I use glass or ceramic containers instead. I go without monthly bug control service, and I don’t opt for optional stain protection treatments for upholstery or floor coverings. I use only low-VOC paint.

I also quit using polycarbonate sport bottles and switched to an aluminum container instead. Within the last three weeks, Nalgene, which is a very big name in these polycarbonate containers used by hikers and sports enthusiasts, announced it’s going to eliminate all containers derived from BPA.

Another thing: a lot of these chemicals settle in dust in people’s homes and offices, so vacuuming and dusting once a week can help. In your kitchen, you can opt for hard-aluminized pots and pans instead of Teflon or coated cookware.

Ask questions about the things you buy. I urge people to read labels, and if something isn’t answered by a label, I really encourage people to call the manufacturer or retailer to get their questions answered.