Let’s start with the bad news: You are saturated with man-made chemicals, some of them toxic. Today’s exposure began when compounds in your shampoo and shaving cream seeped into your skin cells, and during your morning coffee, when you drank chemicals that were released into your brew as hot water ran against the plastic walls of your coffeemaker. It continued all day as you touched industrial chemicals in packaging, or walked through pesticide-sprayed lawns, or cooked dinner on nonstick pans. This very minute, your skin is probably touching a piece of clothing or furniture that was doused in protective chemicals to make it resistant to microbes, fungus or water. Tonight, there’s a good chance you’ll curl up in sheets treated with flame retardants.In response to these concerns, in recent years scientists have begun testing the population’s chemical loads in the same rigorous manner that they’ve been testing the environment for decades. This science—called biomonitoring—is slowly helping us understand what our chemical-filled world is doing to us.
I am a paranoid and curious person, and I’ve been following environmental-exposure studies for years. Over time, I developed a morbid curiosity about how many chemicals were lodged in my body. Would I learn how to detoxify? Would I learn that I’m screwed? Would the information be useful at all? In any case, I decided to undergo the most comprehensive testing available to find out.
Last December, I lay on a clinic bed in Buckley’s laboratory at Rutgers. A nurse named Rosalind swabbed my arm in preparation for the Ironman of blood testing. My presence had caused a stir in the lab. They had agreed to take the blood samples I needed for my experiment, but it was far from standard procedure. To get a sense of what I was asking for, think of a lab as a restaurant. I was ordering 150 different dishes—one of everything on the menu—and each would require 10 to 30 complex steps to make. In addition to Rosalind, two other nurses stood by, studying pages of instructions from Quest Diagnostics and Axys Analytical, the labs that would later be analyzing my blood for chemicals including flame retardants, pesticides, plastics and metals.
Rosalind picked up a needle, and the two nurses positioned themselves to grab vials as quickly as my arm could fill them. As I wondered what all that blood would reveal, my mind wandered to memories of a summer childhood ritual: standing in the bathroom in my bathing suit as my mother slathered me with thick layers of sunblock, pausing to let the greasy lotion soak in. Then she’d reach for another canister. “Shut your eyes.” This was my signal to clamp my eyes tight, stop breathing, and turn in a circle while my mother hosed me down with bug spray.
Rosalind read aloud: “OK, ladies. Now we are going to ‘Remove 14 size-large vials of blood from the patient, or as much as is safe.’ ”She looked up. “OK?”
It was the beginning of my experiment, designed to mimic research conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the nation’s primary source for information on exposure to industrial chemicals in the population. In the late 1970s, the agency began searching for exposure to heavy metals like lead and cadmium. Since then, the CDC has periodically conducted a census of American bodies called the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES). The agency uses the data for many things, ranging from children’s growth charts to obesity statistics—and, since 2001, to produce a study called the National Report on Human Exposure to Environmental Chemicals. The next such report, due out late this year, will include data on the prevalence of 228 of the most common environmental toxins.
That’s only a fraction of the few thousand chemicals produced in large quantities, but it’s also a major leap from several decades ago, when there was lead in the gas, asbestos in the walls, and no official effort to figure out whether these things were causing harm. To choose the chemicals it will test for, the CDC publishes a notice in the Federal Register soliciting recommendations from scientists. After the suggestions flood in, it gradually narrows the list, choosing chemicals that are widely distributed and suspected of causing harm. Practical concerns rule out searching for more than a few hundred chemicals. “There’s a limit if you’re getting just a few tubes of blood,” says Jim Pirkle, deputy director of science for the CDC.
The NHANES survey begins when the CDC uses a computer algorithm to select 15 counties nationwide. Surveyors appear on the doorsteps of 800 to 1,600 people in each county and interview them, and around a third of the finalists—5,000 or so people nationwide—are ultimately screened. The agency takes measurements on height, weight, body-fat levels, blood pressure and heart rate, among other things. It does an oral-health exam, a bone scan and a vision test. The study participants fill out questionnaires on diet, sexual behavior and drug use. And yes, they also give copious amounts of urine and blood. The results are anonymous, although participants get a copy, along with a toll-free number to call for help understanding them.
Unless the CDC shows up at your house, it’s just about impossible to get this kind of testing. Until the past few years, chemical-exposure testing was available only in research labs, where academics focused on specific families of chemicals, using expensive techniques like gas chromatography and mass spectroscopy. “It really wasn’t available to the public-health community, or to groups of people who figured they might be exposed to pesticides or other agents, because no one had the hundreds of thousands of dollars to open labs and do the testing,” says environmental-exposure researcher Michael McCally, a senior scientist at Physicians for Social Responsibility in Washington, D.C. The technology has slowly moved into specialized commercial labs, but it’s still wildly expensive to access it. My testing would cost me more than $4,000, and that was with Quest agreeing to do much of the blood analysis for free.
The CDC’s Report on Environmental Exposure doesn’t declare any chemicals harmful or safe. “It’s not their job,” Buckley says. “There are people at the National Institutes of Health who do that stuff, and the ATSDR”—the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, created by Congress with the Superfund act of 1980—“and there are epidemiologists, and all of us academics who spend our whole lives interpreting what the CDC puts out.”
Studies on the connection between environmental disease and chemicals have proliferated since the CDC published its first exposure report. Still, the field is young, and such is the state of the art that my makeshift test would give me only raw data about the chemicals in my body; it wouldn’t tell me anything about the likelihood that a particular chemical would give me cancer. I’d have to assemble a personal posse of experts—those people who spend their lives interpreting CDC data—to help me understand the results.single page
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