We Live In a Toxic World – Part II: The Concept of Body Burden
Michael Garko, Ph.D.
Host – Let’s Talk Nutrition
“Biomonitoring of industrial chemicals in human tissues and fluids has shown that all people, not just those working in or living near major pollution sources, carry a ‘body burden’ of synthetic chemicals in their blood, fat, mother’s milk, semen, urine, and breath” (Thornton, et al., 2002), making the toxic industrial chemicals responsible for the body burden widespread.
Various stunning statistics reported in last month’s issue of Healthful Hints provide support for the claim that vast quantities of industrial chemicals are being disposed of in the environment, leading to an unprecedented increase in the industrially induced body burden of individuals and the population. For example there are approximately 75,000 chemical substances used currently for industrial purposes. Industry in the United States uses annually billions of pounds of toxic chemicals to produce the nation’s goods and services, chemicals which need to be managed or ultimately discharged into the environment. In 2006, 22,880 facilities in the United States disposed of or otherwise discharged 4.25 billion pounds of toxic chemicals into the land, water and air, while handling/managing 24.4 billion pounds of chemicals using other waste management activities (recycling, energy recovery, treatment, etc.) (see Garko, 2008).
The August, 2008, issue of Healthful Hints puts the spotlight on the concept of body burden and some of the health implications associated with it.
The concept of body burden is a useful way for health professionals and lay people to think and talk about the extent to which humans are contaminated with synthetic chemicals found in the air, water, land and food, upon which they rely for survival and good health.
Definition of body burden. Body burden is “the quantity of an exogenous substance or its metabolites that accumulates in an individual or population (Thornton et al., 2002, p. 315). In simpler, less technical terms, body burden is the result of lifelong exposure to industrial chemicals used in the manufacture of thousands of consumer products and found as lingering contaminants in food and the environment (i.e., air, water & soil) (see Houlihan et al., 2003).
How body burden is created. According to Houlihan et al. (2003), hundreds of chemicals can be found in drinking water, household air, dust, treated tap water and food. The chemicals are derived from household products such as detergents, insulation, fabric treatments, cosmetics, paints, upholstery and computers and televisions. They tend to accumulate in fat tissue, blood and organs of the body. Moreover, these toxic chemicals can be passed through the body in breast milk, urine, feces, seat, semen, hair and nails (see Houlihan, et al., 2003).
Extent of chemicals created, used and disposed of in the environment. The vast amount of industrial-commercial chemicals creating the body burden of synthetic chemicals in individuals and the general population is reflected by the following statistics reported in Body Burden: The Pollution in People:
• U.S. chemical companies hold licenses to make 75,000 chemicals for commercial use. The federal government registers an average of 2,000 newly synthesized chemicals each year.
• The government has tallied 5,000 chemical ingredients in cosmetics; more than 3,200 chemicals added to food; 1,010 chemicals used in 11,700 consumer products; and 500 chemicals used as active ingredients in pesticides
• In 1998 U.S. industries reported manufacturing 6.5 trillion pounds of 9,000 different chemicals … and in 2000 major U.S. industries reported dumping 7.1 billion pounds of 650 industrial chemicals into our air and water (Houlihan et al., 2003, pp. 10-11).
Extent of body burden in population. In their call for educating the general public about the exposure to toxic industrial chemicals and the biomonitoring of the population for chemical exposure and extent of individuals’ body burden, Thornton, McCally and Houlihan (2002), assert that “all humans are now exposed to synthetic pollutants in drinking water, air, and the food supply, as well as in consumer products and home pesticides” (p. 315).
Health consequences of body burden. The health issue is that these potentially toxic chemicals cannot be properly metabolized and completely excreted from the body. Thus, they accumulate in the cells and tissues creating a chemically induced body burden which undermines the structure and function of the organs and systems of the body, while increasing the risk for established and suspected deleterious health effects such as 1. premature death, 2. premature birth, 3. cancer, 4. cardiovascular disease, 4. respiratory tract infection, 5. asthma, 6. chronic bronchitis, 7. nervous system disorders (e.g., autism, attention deficit disorder/ADD, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder/ADHD, Parkinson’s disease), 8. permanent decrements in IQ and declines in other measures of brain function, 9. permanent decrements in lung capacity and 10. defects in the reproductive system (e.g., decreased sperm counts, early onset of puberty in girls, hypospadias/birth defect of the penis, cryptochidism/undescended testicles, testicular cancer), among other ill effects (see Houlihan et al., 2003).
Low dose chemical exposure. Clearly, the breadth and depth of toxic industrial chemicals contaminating the environment, resulting in the contamination of humans and increase in body burden, is alarming. Just as alarming is the implausible assertion that low dose exposure of people to hundreds of toxic chemicals simultaneously does not pose a serious health threat to humans and animals. According to many scientists and environmental groups, this claim is a myth perpetuated in large measure by the chemical industry. In a report presented by the Environmental Working Group and entitled, Body Burden: The Pollution in People, it is asserted that “hundreds of studies in the peer-reviewed literature show that adverse health effects from low dose exposures are occurring in the population, caused by unavoidable contamination with PCBs, DDT, dioxin, mercury, lead, toxic air pollutants, and other chemicals” (Houlihan et al., 2003, p. 6). Thus, the general public should not take comfort in the claim that their bodies are not being burdened and health compromised with low dose exposure to synthetically derived industrial chemicals.
Given the extent to which synthetic chemicals are found in drinking water, soil, air, food supply, consumer products and home pesticides, it is plausible to believe the assertion that all humans are currently exposed to synthetic toxic chemicals. There will most likely come a time when going to the doctor will involve a routine biologic monitoring (also called biomonitoring) to assess the extent of a patient’s body burden and the kinds of chemicals and metabolites (breakdown products) contributing to his/her synthetic chemical body burden.
The concept of body burden is real and empirical in that it can be measured. It is not just some abstract idea to talk about synthetic chemicals contaminating humans. Rather, it is a concept that has great health implications for all individuals as they move through the lifespan. It is now understood and confirmed by scientific research that synthetic chemicals tend to accumulate in fat tissue, blood and organs of the body, are passed through the body in breast milk, urine, feces, seat, semen, hair and nails and if allowed to accumulate will have a profound and negative impact on a person’s health and wellness.
Readers can have access to the 83 page report of the study by going to http://archive.ewg.org/reports/bodyburden1/pdf/BBreport_final.pdf. Results from the study are also reported in the journal, Public Health Reports, Volume 117, July-August 2002 edition, which can be accessed by going to http://www.publichealthreports.org/userfiles/117_4/117315.pdf