May 1, 2009 -- Up to 48 toxic chemicals commonly used in everyday consumer products have shown up in blood and urine samples of five prominent women environmental activists, according to a study by the Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit organization devoted to protecting human health and the environment.
"Testing was primarily targeted toward products used in everyday consumer products that have escaped regulation under the Toxic Substances Control Act," Anila Jacob, MD, MPH, a senior scientist with the organization, said at a news briefing.
The findings, according to Jacob and others from Environmental Working Group, offer more proof that the Toxic Substances Control Act is antiquated and needs a major overhaul to protect Americans from the adverse effects of chemicals found in everyday products.
Companies should be required to prove their products are safe before they go on the market, Environmental Working Group scientists say.
While some officials from the chemical industry support modernization of the Toxic Substances Control Act, they contend that the sampling system used in the report provides only a snapshot in time, without enough details on exposure to prove an adverse effect on health.
The Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976 gives the Environmental Protection Agency authority to oversee chemical substances and mixtures, but generally excludes food, drugs, cosmetics, and pesticides.
In February, Congress held the first of what is expected to be several hearings on the law's reform.
Toxic Chemicals Study
The Environmental Working Group study, funded by Rachel's Network, an organization of women environmentalists, took two years to complete. Researchers sampled the activists' blood and urine and analyzed them for toxic chemicals, using four independent laboratories.
"In each of these women we found at least one controversial chemical," says Sonya Lunder, MPH, a senior analyst with the Environmental Working Group and a co-author of the report. To be termed controversial, she says, a chemical must be one whose safety is being debated.
"In everyone we found fire retardants, Teflon chemicals, fragrances, bisphenol A or BPA, and perchlorate," she tells WebMD.
Flame retardants are found in foam furniture, televisions, and computers. Teflon is used in nonstick coatings and grease-resistant food packaging. BPA is a plastics chemical; perchlorate, a rocket fuel ingredient, can contaminate tap water and food. Fragrances have been associated with hormone disruption in animal studies.
Every woman tested positive for up to 60% of the 75 chemicals evaluated, the report found.
The women live far apart: in Green Bay, Wis.; New Orleans; Corpus Christi, Texas; and Oakland, Calif. But their toxic chemical load is similar, according to the Environmental Working Group scientists.
Each woman had at least one chemical at a high percentile --such as the 81st percentile for bisphenol A, meaning her level of chemicals was higher than all but 19% of Americans who have been tested.
Tiffany Harrington, a spokeswoman for the American Chemistry Council, would not comment on the study itself but did issue a statement that reads in part: "The American Chemistry Council supports science-based biomonitoring programs and the responsible and appropriate communication and use of biomonitoring information in assessing the potential risk posed by exposure to chemicals. However, biomonitoring provides only a snapshot of substances present in the body at a single point in time."
Biomonitoring is defined by the CDC as the direct measurement of exposure to a toxic substance by examining the substances themselves or their metabolites in human blood or urine samples.
The statement from American Chemistry Council continued: "It does not tell us where a substance came from, when the exposure to the substance occurred, or the duration and frequency of exposure. The presence of a substance detected by biomonitoring is not, on its own, an indicator if there will be any health effects."
The group does support modernization of the Toxic Substances Control Act, she says.
"These chemicals are showing up in people. They can be potent at very low levels of exposure; we know that from animal studies."
While the rising number of chronic diseases has many roots, she says, the increased exposure to chemicals is one factor.