Cadmium, DDT, dioxins, formaldehyde, lead, mercury, PBDEs, PCBs, PFOs, PFOAs and phthalates. A few of the 82,000 chemicals we may be absorbing into our bodies. 

As our series, A Body’s Burden, indicates: Chemically, we are much more than what we eat and drink. We’re also what we breathe, touch, smell, wear, sit or lie on, rub up against, prepare our foods in or otherwise absorb into our systems.

Some chemicals have been used commercially for 50 years. And, as test of the Hammond Holland family found, many reside in our bodies in varying quantities—with unknown effects. We don’t know what’s there, which one's are harmful and what specific effects they may have on us, our children, or grand-children.

Scientific test are relatively few and skimpy results give us little information about what is harmful. We know, however, that autism, asthma, cancer, and other diseases may be related to such chemicals.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention began cataloging our bodies chemical burden in the 1990s. Ten years later, we’ve only recorded, measured, and defined effects of 148 or so of the 82,000 compounds. Each year, 1,000 new ones are added. We’re fighting a losing battle, the gap keeps growing.

These chemicals make possible the high standard of living we enjoy, but they also permeate our lives.

Prof. Aake Bergman, a pioneer in environmental chemistry at Stockholm University, says, “We cannot draw any final conclusions from our family of four,” the Hammond Hollands of Berkely, but the results are “an indication of a very serious problem that society has to address.”

Robert Rickard, chief toxicologist at DuPont, agrees, “It is appropriate, when we identify a bio-persistent material found in the entire population, that we understand that chemical. But let’s not overreact because the chemical is there.”

Don Wigle, an epidemiologist and author of the textbook “Child Health and the Environment” adds, “We should not be arrogant or ignorant. Arrogant in the sense that we think we know a lot about the significance of these contaminants, or ignorant in not admitting what we don’t know. There is a lot we don’t know.”

Indeed, there’s more we don’t know than we know. We have no concerted state or national policy for dealing with these chemicals. Yet, we keep using them in products, adding more without knowing what they do to us or the environment. We need to collect manufacturers’ research data – good and bad – as the Food and Drug Administration seeks to do with prescription drugs.

Government must be much more diligent about dealing with these chemicals. We need a policy for testing and policing them. We also need data and means of encouraging and financing research about their affects. Perhaps manufacturers should finance independent testing and oversight.

Assemblywoman Wilma Chan, D-Oakland, has introduced bills that would require chemical manufacturers to provide California with more information about the industrial chemicals they use, and ban toxic chemicals in toys and baby bottles. Senators Don Perata, D-Oakland, and Deborah Ortiz, D-Sacramento, have called for a statewide “biomonitoring” program to track contaminants in people.

We encourage such legislation, but it should be done on the national, not state, level. The issue transcends state boundaries.

Perhaps we need to borrow from the REACH (Registration, Evaluation and Authorization of Chemicals) program that takes effect in Europe in 2006. It requires evidence from industry that a compound is safe before it goes on the market. It says, “no data, no market,” notes one scientist, and has industry up in arms. But what about the 82,000 chemicals already in use? Mere volume makes that a much bigger problem than new compounds.

The U.S. has been slow to realize and react to this problem. We must, through testing and policy, strive to find out what we don’t know and bring this aspect of our lives under control. It’s a formidable task, but must be taken seriously. Our health – and the world’s – depends on it.

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