Smart discussion about toxics policy reform

Our Bodies’ Chemical Burden:
Little Doses Matter a Lot

Third in a series of guest blogs by best-selling author Dan Goleman

Here’s sobering news: any one of us, anywhere on the planet, lugs hundreds of industrial chemicals around in our bodies – and they are up to no good.

If you want to know what industrial chemical compounds Michael Lerner or his wife Sharyle Patton carry around in their bodies, just go to this Environmental Working Group website. Lerner and Patton are both active in environmental health, the field that studies how the chemical byproducts of industry and commerce impact the human body.

Lerner, it seems, lugs around relatively high levels of methylmercury, inorganic arsenic, and polycholorinated biphenols (better-known as PCBs). These are but a few of the 102 industrial chemicals (of the 214 assayed by measuring metabolites) in his blood and urine.

Patton’s body, in addition to these, also has relatively high levels of chlorinated dioxins and organochlorine pesticide residues, plus a generous helping of others that did not show up in her husband’s tests.

Medical databases link (at various levels of certainty), each of these compounds with a distinct set of illnesses. Environmental Working Group has done several body burden studies of its own and shown that babies come into the world contaminated with a complex mixture of chemicals, many of them known to be toxins or carcinogens.

For instance, inorganic arsenic is a known carcinogen. BPA, found in plastics, dental sealants and the linings of tin cans, is a chemical suspected in certain birth defects and developmental delays in children, some cancers, and disturbances in endocrine and hormone function.

Both chlorinated dioxins and PCBs come to us mainly in fatty meats, dairy products and fish. Like BPA, they may link to defects and delays in children and to cancers, as well as to malfunctions of the nervous and immune systems.

The pesticide residues enter our bodies via the foods they are used on, as well as in drinking water; they are associated with a similar roll call of disorders.

Stepping back and looking at the entire list of 214 industrial chemicals this assay finds in our bodies creates the creepy feeling that nothing is safe: toxins waft our way in house dust or thin air, in water and soil, or off-gas from a long litany of objects — from paint and carpeting to computer consoles and furniture.

The body is an ecosystem of sorts, an exquisitely coordinated mass of disparate units functioning within a whole. And like any ecosystem, the body can be invaded by foreign substances that muck up the works. Quantifying how many such invaders our bodies harbor has been the quest of studies on bio-accumulation such as the one Lerner and Patton participated in to assay this biological build-up over a lifetime.

Bio-accumulation has become its own corner of medical science, with studies suggesting that virtually everyone alive on this planet harbors a stew of toxic substances. This shift from measuring pollutants in our water, air or soil to studying what has melded into our biology has led to related shifts in thinking about medical etiology and chemical risk.

One medical model for these chemical invasions holds that ill effects can emerge slowly, over decades, from cumulative chemical exposures at doses so low they are measured in parts per million. For instance, an emerging consensus in oncology holds that a person’s lifetime exposure to many tiny amounts of cancer-causing agents can be just as toxic as a few big doses of carcinogens.

This model of causation rejects seeking a single smoking gun – some substance that in itself fosters cancer – but rather looks to a person’s lifetime, cumulative exposure to a wide range of chemicals that trigger cell mutation. This continual barrage of mutagens can finally overwhelm the immune system’s ability to kill off mutant cells, and so resist cancer.  Our risk of cancer, in this view, reflects the sum total of day-to-day doses of carcinogenic molecules shed into our air, food and water.

Dr. Martha Herbert, a pediatric neurologist at Harvard Medical School, points to the tens of thousands of manufactured compounds that now pepper the nature world in some three billion potential combinations, and the fact that no one knows all the ways these chemical concoctions might impact us. One of the greatest human dangers from this slew of molecules, Dr. Herbert reasons, comes when a child’s fast-growing organs, budding central nervous system and hummingbird-like rapid metabolism gets exposed to – and voraciously incorporates — small amounts of foreign molecules, doing biological damage that may not surface for years.

The brain has a special vulnerability to interference from invading chemicals because of all organs, it utilizes the widest variety of molecules to transmit the chemical messages that coordinate our mental life and biological functions. This very design means there are that many more ways molecules from outside the body can disrupt these processes if they happen to interact with any of countless chemical reactions in the brain.

That’s why little doses can matter a lot.

[Adapted from Daniel Goleman, Ecological Intelligence: The Hidden Impacts of What We Buy. Daniel Goleman blogs at, and his conversations with experts on ecological transparency can be heard at:]

Previous posts in this series:

What Toxicology Doesn’t Measure – And What We Can Do

What We Don’t Know About the Toxic Stuff Around Us

Next week:  What’s Really in Your Shampoo, and Why You Should Find Out

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4 Responses to “Our Bodies’ Chemical Burden:
Little Doses Matter a Lot”

  1. Charli says:

    There is lots of good info on this post; thanks, Dan. I do want to state however, that this issue, more fundamentally is precisely why animal testing fails us.

    Currently, toxicity testing is performed on animals, including rabbits, rats, mice, dogs, cats, primates, hamsters, and even fish. Tests are performed by exposing animals to very high doses of chemicals—often at levels 100 to 1,000 times higher than humans would typically be exposed to.

    Toxicity testing can vary in duration from four hours to several days or months to animals’ entire life spans. The animals are observed for toxic effects, including vomiting, diarrhea, convulsions, respiratory distress, appetite or weight loss, rashes, salivation, paralysis, lethargy, bleeding, organ abnormalities, tumors, and, ultimately, death. In some tests, animals are exposed to chemicals and then bred with other animals; these animals are then observed for harm to the reproductive system, or their offspring are observed for birth defects.

    Nonanimal methods can now test thousands of potentially toxic chemicals at once and provide toxicity information more relevant to humans. It is essential not only for ethical reasons, but practical ones that we incorporate nonanimal methods in toxicity testing.

  2. Chris says:

    For those interested, NVIC ( is working on a Vaccine Ingredients Calculator (VIC) in order to “Provide Visibility into Vaccine Ingredients” because, as pointed out above, little doses can matter a lot.

    I’m the primary software developer on the open source project that produces the calculator. The most disturbing thing that I’ve been learning is a combination of two things: (1) small amounts of known toxins are injected into developing children and purported to be safe, yet (2) there are no safety standards backed by good science for injecting these chemicals.

    The VIC strives to show what is known and what is not known about safety standards, to be neither pro-vaccine nor anti-vaccine, and to support informed consent (to know what and how much is being injected, measured against safety standards when available).

    Dan, thanks for the work you are doing. I’m currently listening to Ecological Intelligence and, as a result, changing some of my personal habits at home/work. I’d like to suggest that you consider looking at vaccine ingredients as fitting within the ecological intelligence framework (if you haven’t already). It would be very helpful to have this often controversial subject placed into the larger context of chemical body burden.

    In case anybody would like to see how hard it is to figure out a safety standard, I’ve detailed my search for one for aluminum:

    [email protected]

    • Chris says:

      I should have included this in the original posting. This is just a small example of the many different chemicals used in vaccines, taken from a package insert:

      Other ingredients per 0.5 mL dose include 1.5 mg aluminum phosphate (0.33 mg of aluminum) as the adjuvant, ≤5 μg residual formaldehyde, <50 ng residual glutaraldehyde and 3.3 mg (0.6% v/v) 2-phenoxyethanol (not as a preservative). The vial stopper is composed of dry natural latex rubber.

      The package insert can be obtained from the FDA's website:


  3. Thank you for a sobering and informative post. Knowing that even trace amounts of these substances can cause lasting harm is why we started Squishy Press. My wife and I started making baby books because we saw our son chewing on board books with foils and UV laminates and decided that there needed to be safer alternatives. We found that when we went to the lab to get our books tested for just the eight heavy metals covered under CPSIA for children’s toys that baby books were exempt unless they have a “scrapable coating.”

    Even though our books showed spectacularly well on the CPSIA test I am worried about chemicals we may not even know about yet.