I’d love to see what the angry toxicologist thinks of this scary article from CNN Tests reveal high chemical levels in kids’ bodies.

Michelle Hammond and Jeremiah Holland were intrigued when a friend at the Oakland Tribune asked them and their two young children to take part in a cutting-edge study to measure the industrial chemicals in their bodies.

“In the beginning, I wasn’t worried at all; I was fascinated,” Hammond, 37, recalled.

But that fascination soon changed to fear, as tests revealed that their children — Rowan, then 18 months, and Mikaela, then 5 — had chemical exposure levels up to seven times those of their parents.

“[Rowan’s] been on this planet for 18 months, and he’s loaded with a chemical I’ve never heard of,” Holland, 37, said. “He had two to three times the level of flame retardants in his body that’s been known to cause thyroid dysfunction in lab rats.”

Oh noes! The toxins!

I kid, but in the midst of an article which is a bit over-the-top in scaremongering are some important issues that probably should result in increased regulation of chemicals going into everyday products. For one, Elizabeth Whelan of the ACSH, true to form, spouts the standard industry denial – no problem:


Elizabeth Whelan, president of the American Council on Science and Health, a public health advocacy group, disagrees.

“My concern about this trend about measuring chemicals in the blood is it’s leading people to believe that the mere ability to detect chemicals is the same as proving a hazard, that if you have this chemical, you are at risk of a disease, and that is false,” she said. Whelan contends that trace levels of industrial chemicals in our bodies do not necessarily pose health risks.

Public health advocacy group? The ACSH? Please. Try instead, an industry can do no wrong advocacy group. While I agree that trace measurements of most of these chemicals is likely not a health problem, that doesn’t mean there is “no problem”.

The main problem here are the standards by which the EPA regulates chemicals which are routinely going into household products:

The Environmental Protection Agency does not require chemical manufacturers to conduct human toxicity studies before approving their chemicals for use in the market. A manufacturer simply has to submit paperwork on a chemical, all the data that exists on that chemical to date, and wait 90 days for approval.

Jennifer Wood, an EPA spokeswoman, insists the agency has the tools to ensure safe oversight.

“If during the new-chemical review process, EPA determines that it may have concerns regarding risk or exposure, the EPA has the authority to require additional testing,” she said. EPA records show that of the 1,500 new chemicals submitted each year, the agency asks for additional testing roughly 10 percent of the time. The EPA has set up a voluntary testing program with the major chemical manufacturers to retroactively test some of the 3,000 most widely used chemicals.

Now, this makes sense in the context of our understanding of toxicity before more sensitive methods of testing for these chemicals in the body emerged. When these rules were formulated it simply was not understood that low-level environmental exposure to many chemicals would lead to small amounts being absorbed, ingested, inhaled, etc., by the body. While it’s not clear that any level of these chemicals should be a concern for health, it simply isn’t acceptable now that we know they eventually get ingested to treat them as benign and harmless as a default. At the very least it needs to be made clear to consumers exactly what they’re buying, but even that isn’t really enough, as the woman in the article complains:

“I’m angry at my government for failing to regulate chemicals that are in mass production and in consumer products.” Hammond says. “I don’t think it should have to be up to me to worry about what’s in my couch.”

This is a very reasonable complaint. It is simply not possible for an average or even extremely above-average consumer to understand the impact of all these chemicals in ordinary household products even if they were informed of the content. Instead there simply must be more significant advanced safety testing, labeling, and retrospective testing, with the costs incumbent on the industry, for chemicals that ultimately end up in our bloodstreams. It is fundamentally unfair to expect consumers to tolerate chemical contaminants in their bodies, without being informed, given consent, or being minimally protected by toxicity and safety testing in animals.