FEATURE - Government survey checks Americans for chemicals
[Moderator: Please visit the website for the full story. As soon as
anybody finds the URL for this EPA project "National Exposure Report
Card" , I'll be glad to abstract and announce it. -Gary Greenberg]
USA: October 17, 2000
ATLANTA - Are chemicals leaching from toys and causing dangerous
hormonal changes in American children? Are tiny traces of dioxins
threatening the virility of American men? Will spraying pesticides to
kill mosquitoes lead to an epidemic of cancer in future decades?
A report from the U.S. Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC),
due out in a few months, aims to start answering some of these
questions. The National Exposure Report Card will tell scientists and
the public how many Americans - and which ones - have unusually high
levels of lead, pesticides and other undesirable substances in their
"We don't have anything remotely like this," Dr. James Pirkle, who is
helping direct the study, told reporters. "It's like going from
tricycles to Hondas."
For the National Exposure Report Card, CDC scientists are travelling
around the country, taking blood and urine samples from 5,000 people
considered representative of the race, gender, ethnic and economic
makeup of the nation.
"We ask them 5,000 questions - literally 5,000 questions," Pirkle said.
These include checks into where they have worked, what fertilisers or
pesticides they have used on their lawns, how long ago their homes were
painted and what they eat.
But since thinking you may have been exposed to a chemical does not
necessarily mean it got into your body, the tests will also confirm who
has a heavy load of dioxins, lead or PCBs. This information will be
correlated and compared with CDC's data on rates of cancer and other
The report, due out in December or January, will be the most extensive
look at what chemicals Americans have actually been exposed to. It will
be available on the Internet, along with information on what is known
about how much of a particular toxic substance it takes to cause
REPORT CHECKS ON 25 CHEMICALS AND COMPOUNDS
It will look at 25 substances, including heavy metals such as lead,
cadmium and mercury, tobacco products, organophosphate pesticides such
as chlorpyrifos and malathion and phthalates, used to soften plastic and
the recent subject of attacks by groups that say they leach out of
children's plastic toys, bottles and even pacifiers.
It will look for dioxins - the chemicals that cleared out Times Beach,
Missouri, in 1983 and the Love Canal site in Niagara Falls, New York, in
1978 - and for PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls) by-products of
electrical manufacturing that are now known to cause cancer.
Some dioxins have hormone-like effects on the human body, causing
changes that can lead not only to cancer but to infertility and other
sexual changes. The U.S. government has declared certain dioxins to be
Each year, the report will be reissued with 5,000 new people tested to
keep an eye on changes in patterns.
The scientists will look first and hardest at substances known to cause
cancer, birth defects and neurologic diseases - notably the dioxins,
PCBs, pesticides and volatile organic compounds such as the gasoline
additive MTBE. Then they will look at substances whose role in causing
disease is more open to question: chemicals such as phthalates.
"All of this stuff is controversial," Pirkle said. "That is why we are
in the middle of it."
This past summer, the European Parliament toughened a draft law that
would ban toys including pacifiers suspected of leaking phthalates into
babies' mouths when sucked. Eight EU countries have decided to impose
unilateral bans on phthalates and two more are considering it.
Consumer campaigners say the chemicals are linked to liver, kidney and
testicular problems, but the plastics and toy industries deny a risk,
arguing that not enough of the chemicals leach into babies' mouths to
pose a problem.
The chemical industry demands tests that show how much of the substances
actually do leach out into people's bodies.
Leaning casually against a $450,000 gas mass spectrometer used to
measure heavy metals, Pirkle told of finding higher-than-expected
amounts of lead in people living in the remote Himalayas.
Lead usually gets into people's bodies when they breathe in fumes from
fuel containing lead, which is why leaded gasoline in banned in the
United States, or when they eat a lead-containing substance such as
paint chips. It can cause brain damage and death.
CDC can measure 230 toxic substances in blood or urine. Of these, Pirkle
said, 50 can be measured only equipment at the CDC. They can look for
chemicals likely to be used in terrorist attacks such as nerve agents,
sulphur mustards like the mustard gas that killed 70,000 in World War I,
heavy metals and ricin.
The lab should be able to use its resources to defuse panic after a
possible terrorist attack, he said. Not only should its screens be able
to quickly tell who has been exposed to a deadly gas - they can tell who
A quick screening test can help public health officials decide quickly
how much of an emergency they have on their hands, he said. "It's
considered bad form in public health to evacuate a city when you don't
Story by Maggie Fox, Health and Science Correspondent
REUTERS NEWS SERVICE
Gary N. Greenberg, MD MPH Sysop / Moderator Occ-Env-Med-L MailList
gary.greenberg at duke.edu Duke Occupat, Environ, Int & Fam Medicine
OEM-L Maillist Website: http://occhealthnews.com