State Sen. Lisa Brown believed she was reasonably safe from toxic chemicals. The Spokane politician and mother buys organic food when it’s available and limits her use of pesticides.
So it came as an unpleasant surprise this week when she discovered that there are at least 37 toxic chemicals in her body, some of which have been banned for more than 30 years.
“It’s eye-opening to see the levels of substances that end up in people’s bodies and what effect they’re having,” Brown said.
A year ago, the Toxic-Free Legacy Coalition, an alliance of more than 50 health care and advocacy groups, collected blood, hair and urine samples from 10 prominent Washington residents to see which toxic chemicals were getting into their bodies.
The results, released Tuesday in Seattle, showed that all 10 people tested positive for at least 26 and as many as 39 toxic chemicals known to cause cancer, damage organs, harm reproductive development and the nervous system or impair learning.
Participants in the study, called Pollution in People, came from different walks of life. Besides Brown, one other lives in Eastern Washington: Deb Abrahamson, a Spokane Tribal member and director of the Society for Sovereignty, Health, Air, Water and Land.
The study showed that chemicals from consumer products, food and industrial pollution contaminate our bodies, said its author, Erika Schreder, of the Washington Toxics Coalition. Some of these chemicals were found at or near levels high enough to cause infertility, learning deficits and other health problems.
“The presence of these chemicals in our bodies is not harmless,” Schreder said. “There has to be a real change in the way we are managing these chemicals.”
Every participant was contaminated with phthalates. Found in a wide variety of consumer products such as plastics, perfumes and that new car smell, phthalates have been linked to reproductive problems in laboratory animals, especially males.
Perfluorinated chemicals, used to make Teflon, Gor-Tex and stain protection treatments for clothes, were found in every participant. They take years to get rid of and have been linked to cancers, kidney and liver damage.
“I’m getting rid of my favorite Teflon frying pan,” Abrahamson said, “That’s the first thing.”
Every participant was found to have PCBs, an industrial coolant believed to cause cancer, immune problems and learning deficits. Eight out of the 10 had DDT, a pesticide known to damage nervous systems. Both of these substances linger in the environment despite being banned more than 30 years ago.
A marker for the pesticide carbaryl, considered a carcinogen by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, was found in five participants, including Brown and Abrahamson. Three of the participants showed mercury exposures above levels the EPA considers safe.
The findings disturbed Abrahamson, 51, a Native American who now wonders whether the camas root she has eaten her entire life was dug too close to agricultural operations where pesticides are used.
She believes her socioeconomic status has something to do with the reason she tested positive for 39 different toxic chemicals.
“I don’t buy organic,” Abrahamson said. They are not available at the tribal store in Wellpinit, even if she could afford it.
Many of the foods her tribe eats are provided through commodity and local food distribution programs, and choices are limited. Donated computers, another possible source of toxic chemicals, line many walls in reservation offices, she said.
She hopes the Affiliated Tribes of the Northwest and the Northwest Indian Health Board will look at the results of the Pollution in People study and act to make changes in toxic chemicals management.
Brown, 49, said the state Legislature might be interested in the results of the study as it considers a bill to ban PBDEs, a flame retardant used in carpet pads and foam cushions that builds up in fat tissue and is linked to brain and thyroid problems in laboratory animals.
Her colleague, 37-year-old Sen. Bill Finkbeiner, R-Kirkland, had the highest level of PFOA, used to make Teflon, and the highest levels of carbaryl.
Brown’s own tests indicated a phthalate at a level greater than 95 percent of the population as a whole.
“The results were a little surprising to me,” Brown said. “I wouldn’t call myself extremely vigilant, but I pay attention.”
The report released Tuesday pointed out that once chemicals are in use they are extremely difficult for the EPA to restrict. It also cited lack of regulatory structure at the state level.
The coalition called for companies to provide data on the health effects of their chemicals. It also urged immediate plans to phase out and replace chemicals that can damage children’s learning ability, harm reproduction, cause disease or build up in the human body.