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Pollution of our air, water, and land has been studied for years, prompting laws to protect public health and the environment. Now scientists are finding pollution in people. Much of it comes from the unnecessary use of toxic chemicals in common consumer products and plastics. Yet no effective policies are in place to keep hazardous chemicals out of our bodies. It’s time that these new studies motivate government to act once again.

Until now, the level of dangerous chemical pollution in Maine people has not been known. Through a cooperative effort with the University of Southern Maine led by Dr. Rick Donahue, 13 men and women from Maine volunteered in 2006 to be tested for chemicals encountered in their everyday lives.

The results represent the first-ever report of nearly 50 toxic pollutants found in Maine people. By releasing these findings, the Alliance for a Clean and Healthy Maine seeks to elevate the public discussion about pollution in Maine people and promote action to fix our broken safety system that allows chemicals to build up in our bodies.

Chemicals are all around us—in the air we breathe, the water we drink, the food we eat, and the products that fill our homes, schools and workplaces. While some of these substances are harmless, other chemicals still in widespread use are known to be hazardous to our health and environment. The effects of most chemicals in commerce are largely unknown, since the chemical industry is not required to test their products for health and safety threats. Medical research is revealing that common chemicals can disrupt the normal functioning of our cells and organs and damage our health. Some chemicals also accumulate over time, building up and combining with each other inside our bodies.

Together, the chemicals inside of a living being add up to a total “body burden” of contamination. Each of us carries a chemical burden; for some, this burden can be more risky than for others, depending on our genetic makeup, health status, and socio-economic background. Some groups such as babies in the womb are especially vulnerable.

These 13 Maine residents join others across the United States, Canada and Europe who have volunteered for testing so that we may begin to understand our relationship with the chemicals in the world around us. By comparing the levels found in Maine people to other, similar populations in the U.S., we can track our exposure to toxic chemicals, while we work with others to change government policy and business practices to switch to safer alternatives.

This is not a controlled research study. Because of the small sample size, the study results can not be used to draw statistical conclusions about chemical exposures for various population sectors or the Maine public as a whole. The data from these tests provide a snapshot of the accumulation of and exposure to some chemicals in some long-time Maine residents. The only statistically-based compilation of nationwide measurements is the National Health And Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES), conducted by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which does not test for all the chemicals assessed in our project.
This study focused on five groups of chemicals that have been linked to harmful effects:

• Phthalates, chemicals added to nail polish and many other beauty products, and to PVC plastic (vinyl) to make it more flexible for shower curtains and other soft plastics;

• Polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs), the toxic flame retardants added to the plastic cases of televisions, and the fibers in draperies, furniture and other textiles;

• Perfluorinated chemicals (PFCs), the extremely persistent Teflon chemicals used as protective coatings for fabrics, furniture, carpets, cookware and fast-food packaging;

• Bisphenol A (BPA), a chemical used to make reusable plastic water bottles and baby bottles, the linings in metal food cans and dental sealants;

• Metals, including lead, found in old paints and plumbing, and in batteries, electronics, electrical wiring, ammunition, wheel weights, and other products; mercury, released from products and power plants into air and water, where it builds up in fish; and arsenic, a former pesticide that occurs naturally in soils and some Maine well water.

These particular chemicals were chosen because they are found in common products that are part of our modern lifestyle and have come under increasing scrutiny as potential threats to human health. Some are also known to be very long-lived in the environment (or persistent) and to build up in the food chain (or bioaccumulate). More and more, these chemicals are being shown to have adverse health effects at extremely low levels, in some cases levels below what was previously considered safe, especially at crucial moments in human growth. For example, we know that low-level exposures to lead and mercury harm the developing brain, causing lowered intelligence and learning and behavior problems. How might exposure to other, less well-studied chemicals be harming our health?

Only in the last decade have scientists and doctors discovered that some chemicals, like brominated flame retardants and fluorinated stain-resistant coatings, move from the products in which they are used into the environment and into humans and wildlife. We know that these chemicals are harmful from animal studies. We don’t understand very well the combined effects of these chemical exposures on human health, especially on fetuses and children who are more sensitive to toxic effects. We do know that human exposure levels for some of these chemicals approach or exceed toxic levels in animals.

Chemicals that interrupt the intricate processes of developing life can, at high levels, wreak havoc in the form of severe birth defects, or at lower levels cause subtle but important changes in development that surface later in childhood as learning or behavioral problems, or in adulthood in the form of certain cancers or deteriorating brain function. Researchers are only just beginning to understand these connections. Monitoring levels of toxic chemicals in people’s bodies (or biomonitoring) can help set priorities for policy, substitution with safer alternatives, and further research.

Sources of potential exposure vary with our individual day-to-day routine activities. In this survey, information gathered from interviews with participants was used to develop possible routes of chemical exposure. Because of the multitude of chemicals we face every day, such exposure pathways are difficult to establish, but participants were provided with information about possible sources such as food consumption and product use.

Do Low Doses Pose a Danger?

A common argument against concerns about chemicals in people is that the presence of minute amounts of chemicals in our bodies is not necessarily a threat. Our technological ability to detect trace amounts of substances—parts per billion or trillion—is advancing faster than our scientific ability to determine the effects of such small amounts of chemicals. We can prove that a person was exposed, but we can not as easily pinpoint the source of the exposure, or say what the health effects might be, or what the person should do about it. Just because we haven't found conclusive evidence in humans that a chemical causes some effect does not mean it is harmless. Many prescription drugs aimed at addressing a host of medical conditions cause the intended biological effects at effective doses similar to the low levels found for the chemical pollutants in this study. And emerging science reveals that many chemicals mimic natural hormones in the body that act at extremely low levels to regulate development, reproduction, immune function and many other biological systems.

Moving from the sources of chemicals inside us to what effects they might have on our health is a formidable, sometimes impossible task for environmental health professionals. It can be difficult to come up with easy answers to questions on the health impact of chemicals. The results of this pilot study cannot be used to predict how a participant's health will be affected by his or her chemical body burden. Many factors influence whether or not exposure to toxic substances will result in a health problem, including:

• the type and nature of the chemical;
• when in his or her lifetime a person was exposed;
• how often a person was exposed, and for how long;
• the amount of the chemical exposure;
• the individual's genetic makeup and physical condition;
• the person’s health and nutrition, and their access to quality health care; and
• the person’s socio-economic status.

While we cannot make direct links to the health of Maine people, we can place the Maine results in the context of other national and regional biomonitoring studies and surveys, particularly the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Third National Report on Human Exposure to Environmental Chemicals, and similar small studies in Washington, California, Canada, and in six studies in the U.S. conducted by the Environmental Working Group, an early pioneer in the use of biomonitoring. However, it is important to note that this is not a statistical study (see Box) and comparisons should be made cautiously.

Reviewing laboratory reports that describe the measurements of chemicals in humans can be overwhelming. The units are so small—parts per billion—they can be incomprehensible. As improved laboratory technology allows for the detection of smaller and smaller amounts of substances, we now can find all kinds of substances we never knew were inside of us. This creates a dilemma for both health professionals and the public, who are trying to understand whether they are at risk from the chemicals inside of them (see Sidebar). Yet absence of knowledge is not proof of safety.

The findings presented in this report beg us to err on the side of caution, for our health and the sake of our children's future. The history of widespread harm caused by toxic substances like lead, PCBs, and mercury demonstrates the need to act on early warnings. And when controlled laboratory experiments reveal a connection between exposure to these chemicals and brain damage or chronic diseases, our concern only increases. When there is plausible concern about serious environmental public health hazards, and scientific uncertainty about the cause-and-effect relationship, then precautionary action should be taken to prevent exposure and possible harm.


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