Enough to make the blood boil

Deborah Elaine Barrie
Enough to make the blood boil
Sat Nov 15 16:50:57 2003

Fri 14 Nov 2003
The Scotsman

Enough to make the blood boil

Seriously hazardous chemicals can be found in the tissue of nearly
every person alive. It is a frightening thought, but exposure to such
toxic substances has been linked to a higher incidence in several
cancers, reproductive complications, a continuing decline in
fertility rates and birth defects.

Like the majority of people, I was unaware of the levels of these
chemicals circulating in my bloodstream, so when the opportunity to
find out about them came along, I seized it.

Along with 150 others, from politicians and journalists to leaders of
environmental NGOs and lobby groups, I volunteered to have my blood
tested for three groups of dangerous chemicals, including PCBs,
organochlorine pesticides and PBDEs, or flame-retardants.

The biomonitoring survey, which is the largest exercise the UK has
seen in biomonitoring in over two decades, is part of a chemicals and
health campaign set up by the environmental organisation WWF.

It seeks to discover the extent of volunteers' contamination with the
sort of chemicals and toxic substances that, largely without
consumers' knowledge, are routinely sprayed on crops and food, added
to paints and home-decorating products, and used in everything from
furniture and carports to computers and televisions.

In June, at the time the samples were taken, I did not imagine the
analysis would turn up any particular nasties.

For the first 18 years of my life, from 1972, I lived in a village on
the fringes of the countryside near the industrial town of
Warrington, in Cheshire. Although in my early years the claimed
health benefits of switching to organic food had yet to made, my
parents were aware that agriculture was largely chemical-dependent,
and our supermarket fruit and vegetables were always washed before
being eaten.

I have since continued in the same vein of my upbringing, avoiding
the expensive switch to organic, but conscious that supermarket fruit
and vegetables may have residues of agricultural chemicals and should
therefore be washed before eating.

I am also a carnivore, and although I am not unhappy if I do not get
a daily dose of something's cooked flesh, I eat a lot of what is
likely to be intensively farmed chicken and, particularly, fish.

In short, as far as what I put into my body is concerned, I think I'm
pretty healthy - but not perfect.

But external influences, or the impact of a person's surrounding
domestic, work and leisure environment, can also affect their degree
of toxicity. Since leaving home for university 13 years ago, I have
lived in the comparatively polluted atmospheres of major cities, but
I have never worked in any business close to the chemical industry.

My test results came back last week, detailing my exposure to 77
chemicals, along with the collective minimum, maximum and median of
the other volunteers.

When the full results are published in full later this month, they
will reveal that not one of the 150 participants had clean blood.

One fortunate individual showed detectable levels of only nine of the
77 substances measured. I had 19, and this was below average compared
with a maximum of 49 and a median of 27.

All of the results for the chemicals found are given in "ng/g lipid"
- which stands for nanograms of chemical per gram of fat tested. Put
simply, this reveals how many thousand-millionths of a gram of
chemical were found for every gram of my fat tested.

It sounds negligible, but there is a catch. Virtually nothing is
known about the long-term effects on human health of these chemicals,
in any quantity.

Many of them were first made when manufacturers had no legal
requirement to carry out any safety tests, and none has been tested
on humans. Add this to the fact that no-one knows which of these
chemicals may react together, and things start to get scary.

In addition, the 77 chemicals tested are merely the tip of the
iceberg. There are 100,000 synthetic, man-made ones in the
environment, with 30,000 of those traded freely in the EU.

If a perfect test were available, it would probably prove I am home
to hundreds, possibly thousands, of synthetic and toxic chemical
compounds, the majority of which come under the umbrella of
persistent bioaccumulative endocrine disrupters.

This means that they do not break down readily in the environment and
therefore remain at large for many years once released, that they
have the property of building up in living things in progressively
greater quantities, and that they can interfere with the normal
functioning of the hormone system of both humans and wildlife.

Icontain 11 of the 42 PCBs tested for in the survey, although all at
levels lower than the median of the volunteers. Considering that I
was born after their manufacture was prohibited in 1970 and because
of the very fact that they build up in the environment, I am rather
alarmed by this.

However, according to Dr Asma Khan, a London consultant hired by WWF
to advise on test results, I shouldn't be. Prior to being banned,
PCBs were so ubiquitous you would be hard pushed to find anyone in
industrial countries without detectable levels in their blood.

They are highest in animals high up the food chain, with the main
dietary sources being fish (especially those caught in contaminated
lakes or rivers), fish oils, meat and dairy products.

I am without doubt still being exposed to WWF's second target set of
substances, organochlorine pesticides, which includes DDT, DDE,
Lindane and HCBs. No matter how furiously I scrub my vegetables, I
will be unable to erase chemical traces in certain food-stuffs,
although I was found to contain only three of the 12 tested for,
again all at lower levels than the group median.

Developed and in widespread use in the 1960s and used widely to
control agricultural pests, as well as human and farm-animal
diseases, many have now been banned in the UK after they were
belatedly found to be highly persistent in the environment and cause
long-term toxic effects in wildlife. Certain populations of birds of
prey were devastated due to DDT causing their egg-shells to thin and

DDT from the mother can enter her unborn baby through the placenta.
DDT has been found in amniotic fluid, human placentas, foetuses and
umbilical cord blood. DDT has been measured in human milk, so nursing
infants are also exposed to it. In most cases, however, the benefits
of breast-feeding outweigh any risks from exposure to DDT in the
mother's milk.

Most worrying of all the tests was the exposure to flame-retardants,
or polybrominated diphenyl ethers, PBDEs. These are used extensively
in textiles and plastics, and are commonly employed in polyurethane
foam for furniture and upholstery to mitigate domestic fire risk.

Having purchased a new sofa a year ago, I was not surprised to learn
that this was the area where I was most contaminated. Although only
five of the 23 tested for were found to be present, every one found
was at concentrations significantly above the average.

There is a theory that these chemicals escape from materials and
enter our bodies via our skin or lungs, so just by sitting on my new
sofa, I am prolonging my contamination. Some scientists are also
concerned that PBDEs may enter food from packaging.

The list of potential harmful effects is similar to that of PCBs, but
less is known about them. Sadly, save for living in a Luddite world
where all technological advances are outlawed, a PBDE-free existence
will forever remain a fantasy.

I am not at all surprised that I am host to chemicals about which
little is known of their consequences to human health. I am, however,
angry that I have no freedom of choice in the matter.


Deborah Elaine Barrie
4 Catherine Street
Smiths Falls, On
K7A 3Z8


Searched the web for biomonitoring survey.

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