Our Stolen Futurea book by Theo Colborn, Dianne Dumanoski, and John Peterson Myers
 
 

 

 

Sacramento Bee
5 May 2003

State may test pollution in people
The proposed program aims to draw a link to developmental disorders.
By Ed Fletcher

Lawmakers are considering a proposal to begin a statewide program to use breast milk, urine and blood to test for contaminants in the body.

The program would borrow techniques from the University of California, Davis, where researchers use blood, hair and other tissue samples to explore the environmental factors that may lead to autism.

Scientists there hope the proposed tests will tell them to what extent chemicals used for industrial, commercial and medical purposes affect autism and other developmental disorders.

The proposed state program promises a much broader application.

"Biomonitoring tells us about pollution in people -- what actually gets inside us and has the potential of causing harm," said John Peterson Myers, co-author of the book "Our Stolen Future," which examines the effect foreign chemicals in adults have on fetal development.

To pay for the pilot program -- which would be the first such state program in the nation -- Sen. Deborah Ortiz, D-Sacramento, has proposed a 1-cent-a-pack increase in the tobacco tax.

Finding money for the program will be difficult at a time the state faces a budget deficit Gov. Gray Davis has estimated is as high as $34.6 billion, Ortiz admits.

Davis' 2003-04 budget proposes a $1.10-a-pack increase in the tobacco tax. An alternate proposal -- also being pushed by Ortiz -- calls for a $1.50-a-pack tax increase to reduce smoking and pay for other health care programs.

Regardless of the merits of the proposed biomonitoring program, tobacco industry lobbyists argue, there should not be a special tax to pay for it.

But Ortiz contends such tests could have a powerful impact on the long-term health of Californians.

"These studies can shed new light on how well our regulations are working and help us set priorities for reducing dangerous chemicals that are present in persons' bodies," said Ortiz as she presented her bill, SB 689, to the Senate Health and Human Services Committee last week. "Learning about (contaminants in the body) can help individuals make informed decisions about their health."

The bill passed its first committee test on a 9-3 vote last week.

Ortiz's pilot program would earmark the $10 million projected to be raised by the 1-cent tobacco tax for at least three study areas of diverse populations. A commission would decide which populations would be subject to the initial tests.

Initial tests would study breast milk. Breast milk contains more fat than blood and is useful in testing for substances that are harder to find in the blood. The bill is sponsored by the San Francisco-based Breast Cancer Fund and by Commonweal, a Bolinas-based health and environmental research institute.

There are limitations to the immediate usefulness of biomonitoring data, officials said. Tests must be for specific compounds, and researchers must find a cause-and-effect relationship to improve public health, they said.

If state data could be compared with federal data gathered by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, local health officials would be able to learn much more about health risks in California, said Dr. Jim Pirkle, assistant director for science at the CDC. Current CDC testing is limited and can't break out state-specific data that are scientifically valid.

Early CDC biomonitoring discovered in the late 1970s that levels of lead in people dropped radically as lead was temporarily taken out of gasoline.

"The association of lead in gas and the lead in people was much closer than we thought," Pirkle said. As a result, lead was never added back to auto fuel, Pirkle said.

In January, the CDC released its second report on human exposure to environmental chemicals. The report detailed the levels of 116 chemicals in test subjects chosen to represent the U.S. population.

Traditional toxic exposure studies try to calculate the safe level of human contact with harmful substances. While these estimates are often correct, health officials acknowledge that there have been many instances in which products have been deemed safe and were later determined to be harmful.

Shelley A. Hearne, executive director of the Trust for America's Health, is among those who say traditional tests can't always say if people have been exposed to dangerous chemicals.

"Biomonitoring," Hearne said, "may give them a better chance to understand what is happening."

 
   
   

 

 

 

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