We Live In a Toxic World – Part IV

We Live In a Toxic World – Part IV: The Odds Are Good You Are Carrying a Body Burden of Synthetic Chemicals

 Michael Garko, Ph.D.
Host – Let’s Talk Nutrition


“Chemicals end up in people from pollution in air, water and food; from pesticides and additives in food; through thousands of consumer products from stain repellants to paints and plastics; and from a wide array of new building materials” (Houlihan et al., 2003, p. 37).

Even without the benefit of reading the literature on chemical pollution in humans, most people would not be surprised to learn that chemicals end up in humans as described in the quote. However, most people might be surprised to learn that the odds are good they are carrying a body burden of toxic synthetic chemicals that puts their health and wellbeing at risk. Thornton et al. (2002) who, based on the biomonitoring of industrial chemicals in human tissues and fluids, asserted 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” (p. 315).

Although provocative, the assertion of Thornton et al. (2002) is not necessarily unfounded. The following statistics provide some insight into the extent synthetic chemicals make their way into the environment and our bodies and increase our chances of ill health and premature death:

• Approximately 75,000 chemical substances are used currently for commercial, industrial purposes
• United States federal government registers an average of 2,000 newly synthesized chemicals ever year.
• Industry releases annually billion of pounds of toxic chemicals into the environment, contaminating the land, air, water and ultimately our bodies.
• More than 3,200 chemicals are added to food
• 5,000 chemical ingredients are used in making cosmetics
• 1,010 chemicals are used in 11,700 consumer products
• 500 chemicals are used as active ingredients in pesticides
• United States federal government has identified 228 chemicals as either known to cause cancer or “reasonably anticipated” to cause cancer in humans
• International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) has identified 419 agents as being carcinogenic, possibly carcinogenic or probably carcinogenic to humans (see Garko, 2008)

In addition to cancer, there is a host of other major health consequences linked to toxic chemicals contaminating our land, water, air, consumer products and food supply:

• Premature death
• Premature birth
• Cardiovascular disease
• Respiratory tract infection
• Asthma
• Chronic bronchitis
• Nervous system disorders (e.g., autism, attention deficit disorder/ADD, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder/ADHD, Parkinson’s disease)
• Permanent decrements in IQ and declines in other measures of brain function
• Permanent decrements in lung capacity
• 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)

Given the breadth and depth of chemical contamination and the health consequences associated with the exposure of humans and other life forms on the planet to synthetic chemicals, it is beyond evident that we live in a toxic world which leaves a significant portion of unsuspecting members of the population at risk for carrying a body burden of synthetic chemicals.

This month’s issue of Healthful Hints presents a provocative pilot study focusing on the personal body burden inventory of nine people. You will most likely be stunned by the results as were the study participants. 

Overview and Results of Body Burden Study

The study was headed by Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York in collaboration with the Environmental Working Group (EWG) and Commonweal. Its goal was to “test a small group of people for a broad range of industrial contaminants” (Houlihan et al., 2003, p. 21). The study was a pilot investigation for a larger study intended to collect information on individuals’ personal body burden inventory.

Although it was only a pilot study, the results gleaned from the investigation were stunning and signaled a cause for concern, even for people who do not come in direct contact toxic chemicals. For example, none of the nine study participants worked with or were otherwise exposed to chemicals while on the job. According to the investigators, all of them lead healthy lives.

However, investigators discovered 167 different chemicals, pollutants and pesticides in the blood and urine of the study participants. On average, 91 chemical compounds were found in each of the nine subjects. Many of the compounds are banned currently because of their harmful effects on humans. Of the 167 chemicals found in the blood and urine of subjects, two-thirds (i.e., 112) of the compounds “threaten nearly every organ in the body at every stage of life” (Houlihan et al., 2003, p. 3).

Houlihan et al. (2003) reported that the nine subjects carried:

• 76 chemicals linked to cancer in humans or animals (average of 53 in each subject)
• 94 chemicals that are toxic to the brain and nervous system (average of 62 in each subject)
• 86 chemicals that interfere with the hormone system (average of 58 in each subject)
• 79 chemicals associated with birth defects or abnormal development (average of 55 in each subject)
• 77 chemicals toxic to the reproductive system (average of 55 in each subject)
• 77 chemicals toxic to the immune system (average of 53 in each subject) (see p. 3 of report).

In an Executive Summary independent of the full report, the EWG (2008) commented that “these results represent the most comprehensive assessment of chemical contamination in individuals ever performed” (p.1). The EWG (2008) goes on to say that “many chemicals were not included in the analysis that are known to contaminate virtually the entire U.S. population” (p. 1).

In the same Executive Summary, the EWG (2008) painted a disturbing picture about what is not known about industrial chemicals, pollutants and pesticides contaminating humans and why a more comprehensive understanding does not exist:

A more precise picture of human contamination with industrial chemicals, pollutants and pesticides is not possible because chemical companies are not required to tell EPA how their compounds are used or monitor where their products end up in the environment. Neither does U.S. law require chemical companies to conduct basic health and safety testing of their products either before or after they are commercialized. Eighty percent of all applications to produce a new chemical are approved by the U.S. EPA with no health and safety data. Eighty percent of these are approved in three weeks.

Only the chemical companies know whether their products are dangerous and whether they are likely to contaminate people. As a first step toward a public understanding of the extent of the problem, the chemical industry must submit to the EPA and make public on the web, all information on human exposure to commercial chemicals, any and all studies relating to potential health risks, and comprehensive information on products that contain their chemicals (p. 1).


Given the extent to which they pervade the environment, consumer products of one sort or another and food supply, the odds are good that more than a few people are carrying a body burden of synthetic chemicals possessing the potential to put them at risk for serious health problems, not to mention premature death. The EWG’s report on Body Burden: The Pollution in People containing the details and findings of its pilot study makes one take pause and consider the possibility that his/her health and wellbeing may be in real jeopardy because of carrying a body burden of synthetic chemicals associated with cancer, brain and nervous system disorders, hormone system dysfunction, birth defects, abnormal development, along with reproductive and immune system problems.

Readers are encouraged to read EWG’s report to become more informed about toxic chemicals and their impact on the environment and humans. In particular to learn more about body burden and its health implications.


Environmental Working Group (n.d.) Executive summary: What we found. Retrieved June 15, 2008 at http://archive.ewg.org/reports/bodyburden1/es.php

Garko, M. (2008). We live in a toxic world – Part II: The concept of body burden. Healthful Hints, August issue. Retrieved September 1, 2008 from http://www.letstalknutrition.com

Houlihan, J., Wiles, R., Thayer, K. & Gray S. (2003). Body burden : The pollution in people. Retrieved June 15, 2008, at http://archive.ewg.org/reports/bodyburden1/pdf/BBreport_final.pdf

Thornton, J.W., McCally, M. & Houlihan, J. (2002). Biomonitoring of industrial pollutants: Health and policy implications of the chemical body burden. Public Health Reports, 117, July-August, pp. 315-323.