Smart discussion about toxics policy reform

Death by a Thousand Snapshots

Nothing scares the chemical industry like the facts.  That’s why big chemical companies are so afraid of biomonitoring.

For those of you unfamiliar with the term, biomonitoring is the testing of blood, urine, breast milk, hair or other tissue for the presence of industrial chemicals and pollutants.

What could be worse for industry than people actually finding out how many industrial chemicals pollute their bodies?  A June 11 report on the subject by the Government Accountability Office, Congress’s investigative arm, won’t calm industry’s nerves.

The GAO report, entitled EPA Chemical Assessments, made clear, among other things that:

  • We need more biomonitoring data: “One major reason for the agency’s limited use of such data,” GAO says, “ is that, to date, there are no biomonitoring data for most commercial chemicals.”
  • The Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) must be overhauled to give the U.S.Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) the authority to require biomonitoring studies for all chemicals that could reasonably be expected to end up in people  and to empower EPA with clear authority to demand from industry any study it needs to determine a suspect chemical’s toxicity.

Biomonitoring is the gold standard for measuring toxic chemical exposure in a large population.  It is by far and away the most critical piece of information that regulators currently lack in deciding which chemicals to target for restrictions.

When government officials have high quality biomonitoring data to combine with strong toxicity studies, as is the case with lead, mercury and the Teflon chemical PFOA, they use it.

That’s why chemical industry spinmeisters are trying to discount the value of biomonitoring by characterizing the technique as a one-time snapshot that does not convey the complexity of a chemical’s interaction with the population.

“Biomonitoring provides a snapshot of substances present in the body at a single point in time,” says the ACC website, “but it alone does not tell us where a substance came from, when a person was exposed to it, the amount of exposure over time, or if there will be any health effects.”

It’s true that biomonitoring provides a snapshot of the body burden of each individual who has volunteered to be tested.  And of course finding an industrial chemical in a newborn’s cord blood doesn’t tell us where it came from or whether or not it is toxic.  But it puts that chemical in the regulatory crosshairs and makes our ignorance about how it got there and how dangerous it is that much more deplorable.

When researchers from U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) assemble “snapshots” from more than a thousand people in a statistically rigorous study protocol, the result is a broad, deep, almost three-dimensional portrait of chemical exposures throughout the population.

CDC biomonitoring studies have found that:

  • 93 percent of the U.S. population is polluted with bisphenol A, the endocrine-disrupting heavily used plastics chemical
  • 100 percent of the U.S. population is contaminated with perchlorate, a thyroid toxin and explosive component of rocket fuel.
  • 84 percent of the U.S. population is contaminated with at least six different phthalates at any given time.  Phthalates are plastic softeners that are common in pliable plastic products.  They are linked to birth defects of the reproductive system in baby boys.

This is the big picture, quite literally, that health officials too often lack when deciding whether to target a chemical.

Because it’s so clear and convincing – so true, in the profoundest sense — it’s the chemical industry’s worst nightmare.   Like the old saw about a picture that’s worth a thousand words, a biomonitoring report lets people know, more vividly than any long-winded narrative, just how severely they, their kids, their friends and neighbors and millions of people they don’t know are polluted with industrial chemicals.


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2 Responses to “Death by a Thousand Snapshots”

  1. Thanks for telling it like it is. Knowledge, uncovered and shared, is the first step in making a decision for personal and global health.

  2. We agree. Knowing how polluted we all are is the critical first step in transforming the policies that caused the problem in the place. That helps explain why industry spends so much energy trying to confuse the issue. Knowledge helps us. Confusion helps them.