The frightening reality that toxic chemicals are building up in his body has been confirmed for Dartmouth resident Jerry Fishbein. He is not alone, according to the results of a national bio-monitoring study released last week.
“My scores are not outrageously high, but in laboratory studies on animals, harm has been done at levels lower than this,” said Mr. Fishbein.
He was one of 35 average citizens from across the nation tested for toxins earlier this year. Scientists say the same harmful chemicals are likely to be building up in the rest of us, too — as a side-effect of using commonplace consumer products.
“We knew that these chemicals were in everyday products. That’s why we tested for them. But, to the extent that they are in every single participant’s body is remarkable,” said Elizabeth Saunders of Clean Water Action in Boston.
Clean Water Action is part of a nationwide coalition of non-profits that set out to prove that just by going about everyday routines the average person accumulates a “body burden” of three specific toxins manufacturers use in consumer products even though safe alternatives exist. Still, Ms. Saunders said they had not expected the contamination to be so copious.
“On a conference call with others in the study, one person said, ‘You can’t shop your way out of this.’ I have learned it is virtually impossible to avoid exposure. We drink organic milk, which is crazy expensive, but it still goes through plastic tubing (in the production process),” said Mr. Fishbein, who is 47 and in good health.
Mr. Fishbein is one of five people in Massachusetts who had his blood and urine tested last spring. The same number of participants was selected from each of six other states (Minnesota, Connecticut, New York, Illinois, Michigan, and Alaska) as a small, hopefully representative sample of the U.S. population. None of the participants worked in settings where they were likely to have any unusual chemical exposures, yet all of them turned out to be polluted.
The test subjects represent a diverse group in terms of age, race and vocation, said Liese Jones, a national spokesperson for Clean Water Action.
“It’s not a statistical type of sampling, but we want to be able to tell the story,” she said at the time the tests were first undertaken.
In Massachusetts, the four others tested include a lawyer in Boston, a clergyman in Framingham, a state representative in Amherst and a youth outreach worker in Malden.
Mr. Fishbein, who is vice president of the Service Employees International Union 1199, said of his results, “I guess I’m not surprised that toxins found in everyday products have found their way into my body. Lots of people seem to assume it’s happening, they just aren’t aware to what extent. With this kind of research and data, I’m hopeful that we can raise awareness.”
The three toxic substances measured were: phthalates, commonly used in cosmetics and plastics; polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs), used as flame retardants for clothing, furniture and electronics; and bisphenol-A, used in plastic baby and water bottles and as a liner in tin cans.
The study found four kinds of phthalates and seven different PBDEs in Mr. Fishbein’s body, as well as bisphenol-A in his blood and urine.
Though the health ramifications of these chemicals have been explored in animals, they have not been scientifically pinned down in humans. Some of the chemicals have been linked to cancers and reproductive disorders, asthma and learning disabilities.
“I shampoo my hair. I sit on my sofa. I drink tap water that goes through processing and plastic pipes, I eat out of cans. There is a breakdown (in the responsibility of the) folks who are responsible for keeping me safe and my kids safe,” Mr. Fishbein said.
All of the study’s participants who submitted urine samples had bisphenol-A in their urine and more than half had it in their blood. The levels found in the blood and urine are within the range shown to cause adverse health effects in laboratory animal studies, according to the study’s Web site “Is It In Us?” (www.isitinus.org).
Four of the five participants with measurable levels of phthalate were found to have contamination that exceeded 95 percent of all the people nationwide whom the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) have examined.
All of the study’s participants had accumulated some level of PBDEs in their bodies.
While the advocates behind this study may not be surprised at what Ms. Saunders called the “general concept” that contaminates build up in our bodies, she said that the public may be shocked.
“Most people don’t have any idea that they could be getting toxic chemicals from a shower curtain, personal hygiene products, the computer or food cans. No one thinks they can be contaminated by something like that,” she said.
The good news, she said, is that these study results come at a time when legislation called the “Safer Alternatives Bill” has passed through the Massachusetts Joint Committee on Environment, Natural Resources and Agriculture and is headed for a vote in the Senate.
New Bedford’s Coalition for Social Justice is rallying support for that legislation and offering itself as a resource for information about the dangers of chemicals in consumer products and what to choose instead. “Mothers even pass on chemicals to their unborn babies through the womb,” said the Coalition’s Debbie Fastino.
“It’s an unnatural amount of chemicals that people are carrying around. For us, (the lead-contaminated toy recall) was a breakthrough. (Before) people would look at you like you’re a left-wing kook trying to shut down businesses,” she said.