Eight months ago, 10 Washingtonians volunteered blood, urine and hair samples to the Washington Toxics Coalition to be tested for eight classes of chemicals.
The results are in, and they are not pretty.
It wouldn't be kind to say that these 10 are walking toxic waste dumps, but their levels of phthalates (found in such diverse products as shower curtains and fragrances), PBDEs (found in flame retardants, mattresses and furniture), mercury, pesticides, lead and other chemicals were high enough to make both scientists and subjects sit up and take notice.
All 10 tested positive for five to seven of those eight categories. Their profiles and test results have been published in a Pollution in People report, a project of the Toxic-Free Legacy Coalition of Washington State.
At a news conference Tuesday, they shared their stories and reactions to the results, expressing shock, sadness, relief, alarm and opinions on what should be done.
Dr. Patricia Dawson, 56, a Seattle surgeon, had the dubious honor of having 38 chemicals detected in her chemical profile. Her PBDE levels were near those found to cause reproductive problems in laboratory animals. Her levels of DDT (banned since 1972) were greater than 90 percent of the U.S. population.
According to her "participant profile," Dawson, a native of Jamaica, was exposed to DDT trucks as a child. "I'm shocked. I eat organic and try to have a healthy lifestyle," she said.
Denis Hayes, president of the Bullitt Foundation and a founder of Earth Day, was found to have mercury above a level deemed safe by the Environmental Protection Agency. Mercury has the potential for causing learning deficits.
"My reaction was relief and alarm -- relief that I'm not planning on having more children and alarm that I'm likely to be buried in a toxic waste dump," said Hayes, 61.
Deb Abrahamson, 51, a Native American living on the Spokane Indian Reservation, and the Rev. Ann Holmes Redding, 54, of Seattle, were found to have very high levels of pesticides.
Abrahamson said she had been worried about exposure to uranium, which is mined near her home. Instead, she learned that she should have been concerned about apples and grapes -- possible sources of the pesticides. She said the tribal store doesn't carry organic produce, which is too expensive for many.
Abrahamson said the EPA had already identified 28 heavy metals polluting the reservation, and pesticides are a concern because they can contaminate camas, a traditional Native America food plant, and other cultural food sources. "Practicing the cultural lifestyle leads to more exposure," she said. The deer, elk and moose they harvest and eat can also ingest toxic chemicals in the environment.
Redding, a state resident for five years, grew up in an agricultural area of New Jersey, a likely reason for her high pesticide levels. She said she was alarmed and felt powerless about the test results, but she said that as an Episcopal priest, she is in a position to alert people to toxic chemicals in the environment.
She said it was the persistence of banned chemicals that bothered her most.
Karen Bowman, 53, is a Seattle-based occupational and environmental health nurse. She tested positive for 35 chemicals and had high levels of phthalates, which are found in vinyl/PVC and personal care products.
It is her job to protect workers in construction and steel mills and those who work with paints, sealants and epoxies. She said her work has increased her exposure to phthalates. "It's scary. I do the right things: Change clothes, use a respirator and other barrier control measures. It demonstrates how insidious the problem of chemical exposure is," Bowman said.
Rob Duff, director of the office of environmental health assessments for the state Department of Health, was not involved in the study, but he said it illustrates "that we have these things in our bodies that really shouldn't be there."
"There's something wrong with how we regulate chemicals in this country. While it's difficult for states to impact that, we can identify the worst of the worst and take action. We need to think strategically to keep from allowing the next harmful chemical to get out there and be used. We need to work with manufacturers and the federal government to change the way we put chemicals into commerce," Duff said.
Erika Schreder, staff scientist at the Washington Toxics Coalition, said Pollution in People was the first investigation of its kind in the state, but the results were comparable to those found in other, larger studies conducted biannually by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Schreder and study participants had suggestions for avoiding toxic chemicals. Contaminated fish were on the list. So were beauty products from companies not committed to toxic-free ingredients. One woman even pointed out that her toenails were painted with red, phthalates-free polish.
Other products to avoid? Foods that aren't organic, and products made of vinyl, such as toys, shower curtains and food packaging.
For the complete report and profiles of participants, go to www.pollutioninpeople.org
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