In 2006, thirteen men and women from Maine participated in study titled “Body of Evidence: A study of Pollution in Main People” sponsored by the Alliance for a Clean and Healthy Maine, which sought to draw attention to the growing presence of toxic chemicals in everyday consumer products. The study looked for a handful of known toxins and heavy metals, some which have been around forever, such as lead and arsenic and some, which are relatively new, such as phthalates, flame retardants, and perfluorinated chemicals. The idea was that if a group of individuals living in one of the most remote and pristine areas of country contained significant levels of these toxins, then we all need to start paying more attention to the products we consume.
The results of the study were shocking. Every single participant contained traceable levels of both heavy metals and toxic synthetics. On average, each participant tested positive for 30 of the 71 toxins used in the study. These toxins included mercury, arsenic, and lead, all of which have been found by the CDC to impair brain development in fetuses and hinder cognitive thinking, memory, attention, language, and fine motor skills in adults in significant concentrations. Also found were PVC’s, known to reduce sperm counts in men; BPA’s, an estrogen mimicking chemical that has been linked to cancer; and other chemicals that are known to be so harmful that they haven’t been produced in over a decade.
The scary part of this study is that many of these chemicals and heavy metals can be found in everyday consumer products including cosmetics, televisions, furniture, cookware, and clothing. People are exposed to these toxins on a daily basis during product use and disposal, and ingest these toxins through vehicles such as household dust, food, indoor air pollution, and drinking water.
What this study shows is that no one is safe and the source of these problems stem from both the ubiquity of synthetics and our ignorance of their effects.
In his book What’s Gotten Into Us? Staying Healthy in a Toxic World, author McKay Jenkins refers to the past 100 years as the “Synthetic Century”. The rapid proliferation of chemical discoveries sparked a genesis in the plastics and chemical industry that has revolutionized the way we live. It is impossible to deny that society and culture would not exist as it is today be it not for the wonders of synthetics. The problem is that we haven’t been using these chemicals long enough to really understand their full effects on the environment and on us.
Although overexposure to synthetics should not be blamed for all of our recent health and environmental woes, we cannot deny that production has outpaced our ability to monitor them. According to McKay, out of the 80,000 known chemicals in use today,”The EPA has a full set of toxicity information for just 7 percent… and the U.S. chemical industry… is so woefully under regulated that 99 percent of chemicals in use today have never been tested for their effects on human health…” It is unsettling to think that no one can explain with certainty how these chemicals will affect our health in the long run.
Maybe the expression “we are what we eat” is a bit outdated. It seems like we are a unique collection of chemicals that represent a piece of what our species has created. A small piece of the overly- processed, preservative-filled, mass-produced pie. As scary as all this sounds it is also, in a way, comforting because it serves as a reminder that we are all responsible for our actions. Now I’m not suggesting that we dispose of our Teflon coated pots and pans and revert back to cooking over an open range. We are so thoroughly steeped in synthetics that they have become a permanent part of our culture. However, we are all capable of making informed, conscious decisions about the types of materials we use and the types of foods we eat. It is up to us and only us to regain control over our lives and industries in order to help make our world a little less toxic.
Laura Dudek is a senior majoring in biology at Skidmore College.
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