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Heal Toxics is a member of the International POPs Elimination Network

This website provides resources on Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs) such as pesticides, dioxins, PCBs, and wastes. Valuable examples of community monitoring of health and environmental impacts of toxic chemicals are also furnished.

Further, there is an entire section devoted to chemical safety in its proper socio-political context or in relation to issues such as globalization and people's empowerment.


Toxins in breast milk: Studies explore impact of chemicals
in our bodies

By Thaddeus Herrick

Last winter, Sharyle Patton got some startling medical-test results.
But she's unsure what, if anything, they mean.

The 59-year-old environmental activist lives in a rural California
community far from industrial centers. She eats organic food and tends
to bike and walk as much as drive. Yet a screen of her blood and urine
showed that her body carried 105 chemicals in measurable levels,
including 46 different compounds of PCBs, industrial insulators that
were banned in 1976.

Ms. Patton was part of small study testing subjects for the presence of
industrial chemicals. Such research is part of a burgeoning movement
called "biomonitoring," an effort to determine the extent of human
exposure to synthetic chemicals, and to link these pollutants to
diseases such as breast cancer.

It has become an integral part of public-health research in Europe,
where some countries routinely screen citizens for industrial

In 1998, studies of Swedish breast milk showed that levels of flame
retardants known as polybrominated diphenyl ethers, or PBDEs, were
doubling every two to five years. As a result, Sweden banned PBDEs, and
the EU has followed suit beginning this year.

Some research here in the U.S. has come up with disturbing numbers. A
study of 20 first-time mothers commissioned by the Washington-based
Environmental Working Group, released in September, found considerably
higher PBDE levels in U.S. women than those recorded in Sweden.

Still, little is known about the implications of these chemicals, and
research subjects who are told they have a high "chemical body burden"
are unsure what to do about it.

One worry is that the findings will have their own side effects.
Breast-feeding advocates fear that reports of chemicals being found in
breast milk could discourage breast-feeding -- even though the Centers
for Disease Control and Prevention says it has yet to see levels of
chemicals in breast milk that would lead it to discourage

The San Francisco advocacy group Breast Cancer Action withdrew its
support of a California legislative bill last year to monitor chemicals
in mother's milk, citing worries about the effect on breast-feeding.
The move put it at odds with its longtime ally, the Breast Cancer Fund,
which supports biomonitoring. The bill is expected to be reintroduced
this year.

Right now, commercial laboratories don't generally offer such tests,
which would have to be custom-designed. And research projects are rare
and expensive. The study Ms. Patton participated in, organized by
advocacy groups Environmental Working Group and Commonweal, with Mount
Sinai School of Medicine, cost researchers $4,900 per person. Even
then, the studies don't always share results with participants.

In Ms. Patton's study, in which researchers did agree to share their
findings, an average of 91 industrial chemicals were found in the nine
adults from six states, with a total of 167 different chemicals
reported in the group. Yet few of the subjects have made many lifestyle
adjustments. Ms. Patton has lived in Bolinas, Calif., north of San
Francisco, for some 30 years and says she felt she was living a clean
life. She has, however, given up nail polish because it often contains
phthalates, chemicals used for their plasticizing and film-formation

"I'm outraged," she says. "I never gave permission to use my body as a
toxic waste site."

There are many ways that chemicals can get into the body. Mostly it's
through diet or environmental exposure.

For example, PBDEs are used in foam for furniture, among other things.
As the foam breaks down, PBDEs are thought to leach into the air and
Are then carried by the wind, rain and snow around the world.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is funding local studies of
breast milk in 120 women in three California communities to look at
levels of PBDEs, and other chemicals. This year, the CDC released its
most exhaustive biomonitoring survey yet, an attempt to compile a
baseline for future efforts to identify and treat victims of exposure
to toxic chemicals. The $6.5 million study tested the blood and urine of 2,500 anonymous volunteers for 116 chemicals, with positive results
found for 89 substances, including polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs,
dioxins, phthalates and pesticides. A follow-up is expected in 2005.

"We plan to be in it for a long, long time," says Jim Pirkle, deputy
director for science at the CDC's Environmental Health Laboratory.

A few of the chemicals for which CDC tested -- including lead, tobacco,
cadmium, mercury and some pesticides -- are known to be toxic to
people; researchers found levels of lead and nicotine-related chemicals sharply reduced over the past decade. Many more of the chemicals in the study have been found to be toxic to laboratory animals, creating
developmental or reproductive problems, or even cancer. But their
effect on humans is still something of a guessing game. "We've got to expand our understanding," says Dr. Pirkle.

The larger goal is to see if there are links between industrial
chemicals and an array of ailments in human beings. In part because
chemicals often accumulate in the fatty tissue of breasts, as well as
breast milk, biomonitoring has won particular support from
breast-cancer advocacy groups, despite Breast Cancer Action's reservations. With as many as half of the breast-cancer cases unexplained, they see biomonitoring as an alternative to the traditional focus of detection, treatment and cure.

"It's an essential part of the research movement," says Jeanne Rizzo,
executive director of the Breast Cancer Fund.

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