Loaded With Chemicals
Click here to read remarks delivered by Donna Yancey, RN, member of the Washington chapter of Physicians for Social Responsibility at National Nurses Week, May 11, 2010. Ms. Yancey retired from Seattle Children’s Hospital as a nurse and has worked in the health care field for 45 years.
What is biomonitoring?
Biomonitoring is the laboratory analysis of blood, urine, serum, saliva, and other body fluids to identify the burden of certain chemicals present in the human body. It is an essential technique that measures the extent to which chemical pollution is absorbed by our bodies through the air we breathe, food we eat, and water we drink. Biomonitoring allows us to recognize the populations that are exposed to, and potentially affected by, chemicals in the environment. It does not give information on how long the substance has been in the body or how it got there, but it guides further research and decisions for which chemicals need to be phased out.
When combined with a nationwide system for tracking chronic diseases, biomonitoring has the potential to provide the information necessary for public health departments, health care providers, and policymakers to identify and address public health threats.
Who does biomonitoring?
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS) currently conducts its own biomonitoring program through the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES). NHANES is an annual, cross-sectional , representative survey designed to collect information about the health and diet of the civilian, non-institutionalized population of the United States. NHANES samples about 5,000 people every year from randomly selected households around the country. Extensive laboratory testing of participants’ body fluids, or biomonitoring, is also conducted.
In 2009, CDC released its Fourth National Exposure Report on Human Exposure to Environmental Chemicals, with data on the levels of 212 environmental chemicals in the bodies of Americans. The report indicated widespread exposure to industrial chemicals, including Bisphenol A (BPA), fire retardants, and perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), a chemical related to the production of Teflon.
In addition to CDC’s program, biomonitoring is also conducted by researchers and others interested in the relationship between chemicals and the human body. Such studies, like PSR’s Hazardous Chemicals in Health Care report, provide snapshots of actual exposures in people, but due to their small sample sizes cannot draw conclusions about exposure levels in the general population. What such studies can do is guide regulatory decisions about prioritizing chemicals for phase outs and research. They also highlight the ubiquity of chemicals exposures in our population, emphasizing the need to reform our chemicals management system.
Why do biomonitoring?
Biomonitoring can guide policy decisions about effective chemical management. Through sampling the cord blood of newborns, for example, researchers can learn about the range of chemicals that fetuses are exposed to in the womb. Because fetuses are particularly vulnerable to the effects of developmental neurotoxicants and other chemical exposures, it is important to shield them from such chemicals. Biomonitoring can provide the essential information for deciding which chemicals to prioritize for phase-out. Biomonitoring can also be useful in identifying groups that are vulnerable to high exposure levels. Some groups of workers, for example, are disproportionately exposed to toxic chemicals. Biomonitoring can help identify these vulnerable groups, potentially guiding lawmakers and industry to implement appropriate and targeted protective measures.
To read PSR’s biomonitoring report, Hazardous Chemicals in Health Care, click here.