Smart discussion about toxics policy reform

Measuring Pollution In People

The mass spectrometers needed to measure traces of chemicals and their byproducts in human samples of blood and urine are big beige machines that, to the untrained eye, look like something you might find at your neighborhood photocopy store.

Commanded by researchers and technicians in clean suits seated at computer keyboards, these exquisitely sensitive instruments spin out findings that show how the chemicals we rely on to make life easier and more convenient have the unintended effect of polluting us.

The measurements, called biomonitoring, tell a sobering story: The U.S. population is widely exposed to the phthalates in plastic, the bisphenol A in food and beverage cans and the flame retardants in furniture. Indeed, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention – home of the state-of-the-art biomonitoring lab described above — has so far reported on 148 chemicals or their byproducts in the blood or urine of a representative sample of the U.S. population.

A new CDC report that will include about 100 additional chemicals is expected before the end of the year.

We’ve learned from biomonitoring that we’re all poster children for the era of “better living through chemistry.” This unsettling information has helped set the stage for the Kid Safe Chemical Act, which Sen. Frank Lautenberg, chairman of the Superfund, Toxics and Environmental Health subcommittee, promises to introduce soon.

Kid Safe, in part, would put the burden on chemical manufacturers to prove that chemicals are safe for infants, children, the developing fetus and others who are especially vulnerable. It is the first real attempt to update our lamentably inadequate toxics laws in more than 30 years.

Last week, we heard from the U.S. Government Accountability Office that the Environmental Protection Agency could do much more to incorporate biomonitoring into the process of determining threats posed by our unwitting exposures to hazardous chemicals in everyday things.

Indeed, the GAO recommended that the EPA develop a comprehensive research strategy to improve its ability to use biomonitoring data in risk assessments. It also urged the agency to request authority from Congress, if necessary, to obtain biomonitoring data from chemical manufacturers.

Sen. Lautenberg called the GAO report “proof positive” we need a law like Kid Safe, which would unquestionably give the EPA better tools – including the use of biomonitoring – to protect Americans from toxic chemicals. Another key policymaker, Sen. Barbara Boxer, who chairs the Environment and Public Works Committee, is eager to see the EPA do more to incorporate biomonitoring into assessing toxic risks.

Getting industry to cooperate on biomonitoring may not be easy. The American Chemistry Council, whose members include Dow, DuPont, Monsanto and dozens of other chemical companies, issued a statement last week describing as “problematic” the GAO’s call for the EPA to consider having companies conduct extensive human biomonitoring.

Nevertheless, biomonitoring data is essential to chemical policy reform. For too long, the chemical industry has been shielded by toothless toxics laws that have kept us in the dark about the risks of everyday toxics. Under our current system, ignorance equals safety.

While the presence of a chemical in the human body does not, alone, mean it causes harm, biomonitoring data gives risk assessors essential information for determining if it does.

We not only have a right to know what’s in us, but this knowledge, no matter how disturbing, is essential for public health.

Nena Baker is an investigative journalist and the author of “The Body Toxic: How the Hazardous Chemistry of Everyday Things Threatens Our Health and Well-being” (North Point Press, 2008). She lives in Portland, Oregon. For more information, visit

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4 Responses to “Measuring Pollution In People”

  1. Steve H. says:

    Nena, great article. I just emailed Senator Lautenberg ( to let him know how important this bill is and to introduce it as soon as possible. He can also be called at (202) 224-3224. Thanks for keeping us informed.

  2. GB says:

    Although this all sounds promising, I hope that there is something in this proposed law, which prevents biased testing by the chemical industries. I have heard many stories about chemical industries doing their OWN testing and skewing the data or just leaving out incriminating information in order to make their products seem less harmful. One independent study of interest came out about Monsanto’s Roundup(glyphosphate), which I was actually told by a federal worker that ‘we could probably drink it and it wouldn’t hurt us’. {Glyphosphate is one chemical used by state agencies and the National Resource Conservation Service for weed killing when trying to establish native grassland species.} The independent study was done in France and revealed that Roundup caused DNA and human cell damage in VERY diluted solutions of Roundup. Here is the study and a commentary article for more information:


    Laws and regulations are good as long as the loop holes are closed. Independent studies by watchdog groups should be federally funded as a “check and balance” system. These groups should also be chosen by the right people, without bias involvement from the chemical industries.

  3. Shannon says:

    Not all chemicals are bad. There does need to be more testing to find out what chemicals are more toxic in comparison than others for public health.

  4. Lydia says:

    The KSCA definitely holds great promise for bringing a needed change to chemical regulation. It is important to take into account that chemical testing needs to be improved as well – current animal models for testing methods are flawed, and an improperly tested chemical is just as dangerous as one left untested. We do have a right to know what is in us (and what it might do to us), and modernizing these testing methods is vital to truly understanding and judging the risk of exposure to specific chemicals. Language supporting the inclusion of more human-relevant, non-animal testing methods is needed in the KSCA to truly ensure that a change for the better in human safety will occur with this legislation.