Our Chemical (Toxic) Burden, Part 2

This is the second in a series of posts involving the EWG report The Pollution in People. In this post, I cover the areas of toxicity as well as a common places these toxins can be found.

Time to return to the EWG Report I introduced two weeks ago: The Pollution in People: Cancer-Causing Chemicals in Americans’ Bodies.  The goal is to boil it down and keep it simple.  The published report is 18 pages. The references and appendices are 154 pages.  Appendix A is a 146-page list of cancer-causing chemicals found in people.  Appendix B is a list of polychlorinated biphenyls found in the human body.  Appendix C is a list of 34 chemicals known to disrupt one or more hallmark of cancer pathways in the body.  Appendices B and C are attached to the report.  If you would like to see the report, you can download a copy here.  If you haven’t read my first post on this report, please read that first here.

What did the report find?

A quick reminder; The Environmental Working Group (EWG) report indicates there are nearly 80,000 chemicals on the market in the United States.  Thousands of these chemicals are in our air, food, water and consumer products. Levels of these chemicals in our bodies can be determined through biomonitoring tests, by measuring them in food, urine, breast milk, hair and other human samples.

The report stems from a review of scientific literature and publicly available data, including data from the National Health and Nutrition Survey (NHANES), which is conducted annually by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.  The agencies followed for identification of chemicals as carcinogenic included the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), which is part of the World Health Organization (WHO); the National Toxicology Program within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services; the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA); and California’s Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment – Proposition 65.  Proposition 65 may sound familiar if you have ever seen a disclaimer or language on a product indicating that it does or doesn’t meet the standards of Proposition 65 in California.

The report breaks chemicals down into seven categories:

–       Industrial chemicals
–       Consumer products
–       Pesticides
–       Metals/alloys
–       Combustion by-products/other by-products
–       Solvents
–       Other

Industrial chemicals includes toxins such as asbestos, benzene, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), chloroform, acrylamide, phthalates, toluene, and a laundry list of chemicals you can’t pronounce but some of which you may have seen on packages of things you have purchased.  The report states that most exposure comes through on-the-job contact; the rest is through contaminated air, drinking water, soil and food.  These chemicals are not used in a bubble.  They are spread through the air, get dumped into our water supplies and pollute the land.  Some are used in food processing, cosmetics and furniture and flooring, just to name a few.  Even though they are categorized as industrial, some were found to be present in nearly every subject tested.

Cancers listed as being associated with industrial chemicals include leukemia, lymphomas, and cancers of the bladder, breast, colon, kidney, liver, lung, pancreas, prostate and rectum.  Really, that covers all the big C’s.

Commercial and consumer products is the next list covered.  Tobacco and alcohol fall into this category, along with furniture, cookware, cosmetics, hair dye, paints, food flavorings, dry-cleaning, as well as packaging materials.

Cancers listed as being associated with commercial and consumer products are broken down in three categories:

–       Tobacco and alcohol-related – lung and other respiratory, oral, breast, bladder and pancreas

–       Tobacco – kidney, liver, stomach and cervical

–       Other chemicals – kidney, leukemia, lymphoma, liver, bladder, stomach, testes, pancreas and ovary.

Pesticides is the next list.  Pesticides and pesticide residue come from home use, drift from nearby fields, food grown with pesticides, contaminated drinking water from agricultural runoff, clothing, and products containing wood preservatives.  Cancers associated with pesticides include prostate, lung, liver, lymphomas and leukemias, bladder and possibly breast.

Heavy metals and alloy molecules can bind to DNA, causing mutations.  Not limited to industrial workers, these bad actors are found in trace amounts in food, water and contaminated air and soil.  Associated cancers are lung, bladder, skin, liver, prostate and kidney.

Combustion and other by-products is an interesting, and scary, category.  These come from industrial facilities (manufacturing), power plants, the combination of chlorine with organic solids (tap water), and when meat is cooked at high temperatures and charred (think barbeque).  Cancers associated with this category are referenced as “multiple cancer sites” and include lung, kidney, bladder, skin, stomach, prostate and non-Hodgkin lymphoma.

Heavy metals and combustion by-products were found in more than 90 percent of the tested population; as well as arsenic, nitrate, chloroform, PFOAs (think non-stick cookware) and the breakdown product of DDT.

Solvents rounds out the list (other than “other”).  It seems to me these would also be found in some of the previous categories.  They list adhesive and pesticide production; and the manufacture of plastics, polymers and personal care products.  Exposures outside of occupational settings, again, comes by way of air contamination.  You know those warnings about using a product in a well-ventilated area?  Paint, degreasers and aerosols fall here.  Associated cancers are liver, kidney and breast.

More on Combustion and Other By-Products
I won’t get on a soapbox, but I do want to briefly discuss a huge toxin source (not mentioned above) that is a combination of carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide, sulfur dioxide, particulate matter, benzene, formaldehyde, and polycyclic hydrocarbons (chief component of petroleum and natural gas).  Have you guessed it yet? Vehicle emissions.  Even with the removal of lead from our gasoline and the use of catalytic converters, vehicle emissions are still a huge environmental and human pollutant.  If you spend a lot of time in an area of high traffic, you are being exposed daily.  Soapbox alert: a huge reason we need to keep moving forward with alternative/renewable energy forms and cleaner emissions standards, which is in danger right now at the political level.  So if you are asked to sign a petition or email your Congressman or woman about these issues, please do.  Getting healthy and avoiding chronic illness and cancer requires a global effort.

What does all of this mean?

The problem is that we don’t have a good handle on the chemical soup.  We know some chemicals move through us quickly, while others take up residence.  There is a level of agreement on the level an individual toxin increases the risk of cancer.  As discussed in my first post, the real conundrum is how multiple toxins targeting the same tissues and organs affect the risk of cancer when combined.  This is where we are now.  So many exposures over our lifetime, and even in any given day, with no real data on how these combinations interact.  I talked about the drug interaction problems in my first post.  This is a similar situation.  Just being exposed to one combustible by-product, or one toxic body care ingredient is measurable.   What happens when we are swimming in this soup?

I will take up the final section of the report in a follow-up post, so stay tuned.

Yours in Wellness,


Next in the series: Our Chemical (Toxic) Burden, Finale

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