RODALE NEWS, EMMAUS, PA—Last week, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released the fourth edition of its National Report on Human Exposure to Environmental Chemicals, a comprehensive measurement of the chemical exposure we face every day. CDC scientists used blood serum and urine samples from about 2,500 participants of the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, and tested those samples for a variety of chemicals, ranging from pesticides to chemical flame retardants in furniture to industrial contaminants. Many of the 212 chemicals for which they tested were found in nearly all people tested.
Here are some of the most notable chemicals we're all being exposed to, and how you can avoid them to protect your health:
#1: PFOA. Short for perfluorooctanoic acid, PFOA is a chemical used to manufacture nonstick cookware and to treat fabrics and food wrappers to keep them stain-repellent. Levels of PFOA found in drinking water have been linked to high cholesterol and both male and female infertility, and it was detected in all the blood sampled by the CDC.
How to avoid it: A Canadian study found that people's greatest exposure to PFOA is not from nonstick pans but from greasy fast-food wrappers, with egg breakfast sandwiches having the highest levels. PFOA can also be produced if you overheat nonstick pans, so watch your nonstick cookware, and never leave pans on the stove unattended. Replace them with safer stainless steel, cast iron, or glass when they start to wear out.
#2: Acrylamide A by-product of tobacco smoke, acrylamide is more likely to sneak into your house via your baked potatoes or french fries if you're a nonsmoker. It's formed when starchy foods are fried, baked, or roasted at extremely high temperatures, and because it's common in grains and can build up in the animals that eat grain, it's sometimes found in dairy products, fish, or poultry. The World Health Organization has classified it as a probable human carcinogen. Acrylamide was detected in U.S. food as recently as 2002, though the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) hasn't started widely testing products for its presence.
How to avoid it: The highest levels of acrylamide are in foods that have been fried, so if you like french fries, try making homemade baked fries rather than using a deep fryer. The FDA advises soaking raw potatoes in water for 15 to 30 minutes before baking to reduce acrylamide formation. "Microwave-baked" potatoes, the agency has found, have no detectable levels of acrylamide. Toasting bread to a lighter brown shade, rather than a dark brown or burnt level, will also reduce acrylamide formation.
#3: Perchlorate. This rocket propellant, used by the military and aerospace industries, as well as fireworks manufacturers, is an unregulated contaminant of drinking-water supplies, primarily in the Southwest. However, because it's also absorbed by fruits and vegetables with high water content and in the fat of dairy cattle, perchlorate has made its way into the nation's food supply. A 2007 study from the University of California–Riverside, found that 100 percent of the nation's date crops were contaminated with it. Thyroid problems are the main adverse health effect of this chemical, due to the fact that it interferes with the body's production of thyroid hormone and our ability to absorb iodine.
How to avoid it: The UC–Riverside study concluded that attempts to avoid fruits and vegetables due to perchlorate contamination would result in nutrient deficiencies. Other research suggests that paying attention to iodine levels and getting your thyroid checked regularly may be a better defense: A 2005 study of Chilean pregnant women found that they had perchlorate levels in their bodies 40 times higher than the average American, yet they experienced no ill effects because their iodine intake was sufficient to counteract its affects. Eating foods that are high in iodine, such as seafood, is a healthier way to get your iodine than dousing your dinner with iodized table salt, which can raise your blood pressure.
#4: MTBE. Once used widely as a gasoline additive to boost octane and cut down on carbon monoxide, methyl tertiary-butyl ether has contaminated groundwater supplies across the country as it leaks out of underground storage tanks, but its long-term health effects aren't really known. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is currently analyzing health data to determine whether the public is at risk.
How to avoid it: The CDC notes that the primary exposure route for MTBE is through inhaling it, so avoid storing gasoline for your lawn mower and other power tools near your house. The greatest control you have over your exposure is to use carbon filters to remove it from your drinking water; call your municipal water supplier and ask for a copy of the latest Consumer Confidence Report, which will tell you if MTBE is present.
The Good News?
These four chemicals are just a sampling of what the CDC found, and they're only a fraction of the 212 chemicals that were detected in a majority of the samples, and an even smaller fraction of the 80,000 chemicals used in consumer products. But one silver lining highlighted in the report is that chemical regulation works. CDC scientists found that levels of lead that could trigger lead poisoning were evident in only 1.4 percent of children under age 10, compared with 88 percent of kids in 1976, before lead bans went into effect. Chemicals that signify secondhand-smoke exposure had dropped 70 percent in nonsmokers between this report and the last report, published in 2005, due to antismoking laws and smoking bans being instituted in cities across the country. The EPA is currently in the process of revising its outdated chemical law, so write your senators and representatives to show your support for chemical regulation.
Published on: December 17, 2009