Test tubes in lab

Biomonitoring and policymaking are forming a positive spiral of change. Biomonitoring can inform — indeed, drive — progress toward health protective policies, and policies are increasingly supporting strong and effective biomonitoring. 

Biomonitoring Can Drive Policy Change

Hard evidence of chemicals in people's bodies gets the attention of the public and policymakers alike. It may be national, statistically significant data, or it may be one person's story of contamination.

Evidence of chemicals in people's bodies gets the attention of the public and policymakers alike.

Several years ago, biologist/poet — and then-nursing mother — Sandra Steingraber passed around a vial of warm breastmilk to government officials gathered at a UN meeting. Backed by global breastmilk biomonitoring data, the gesture lent concrete urgency to the policymakers' efforts to create a treaty on persistent pollutants to protect mothers' milk around the world. Other examples of biomonitoring's recent influence on policy:

California Buffer zones: Biomonitoring in California's central valley helped spur new rules requiring protective buffer zones around homes, schools and other vulnerable sites when the most dangerous pesticides are sprayed.

European Chemical Policy: Body burden testing among opinion leaders in Europe helped shift the stance of key politicians toward more health-protective laws.

State Toxics Laws: National biomonitoring revealed widespread contamination of U.S. citizens with bisphenol A (BPA) and flame retardants, leading lawmakers in several states — and many retailers and private companies — to take protective action.

National Toxics Reform: Biomonitoring studies in rural Alaska shows why stronger national rules on persistent, bioaccumulative toxins are needed. Cordblood studies and the Mind, Disrupted biomonitoring report have also influenced national toxics policy reform efforts.

New Policies Strengthen a Powerful Tool

The first state-level biomonitoring program in the country is California's Environmental Contaminant Biomonitoring Program. The program supports both state-wide testing and community-based monitoring for chemicals of concern. It includes substantive public involvement and reliance on an expert Scientific Guidance Panel to assist with implementation. It was signed by the Governor in September 2006.

"This law will be a model for other states," said Davis Baltz, senior program associate at Commonweal, which co-sponsored the bill. "It gives California public health officials the flexibility to test for chemicals that may be of special concern to our state, and study participants can learn the personal results of testing if they choose." A similar program has since been adopted in Minnesota, and in 2009 CDC awarded $5 million for state-level biomonitoring efforts in New York, Washington and California.

The California biomonitoring law will be a model for other states. - Davis Baltz, Commonweal

At the national level, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is now preparing its 5th National Report on Human Exposure to Environmental Chemicals. Biomonitoring for contaminants in the bodies thousands of U.S. residents has been conducted since 1999, with each study expanding the list of chemicals sampled.  Recognizing the significance of this data, Congress asked the National Research Council to recommend ways to improve the analysis and use of biomonitoring data.

Internationally, UN agencies and the World Health Organization are launching a "Human Milk Survey" to track the impact of the global bans of persistent pollutants under the Stockholm Convention. Many European countries have ongoing biomonitoring efforts, and Canada recently launched a program similar to the CDC monitoring effort. A recent gathering of experts from the U.S. and Europe explored ways to coordinate and strengthen biomonitoring efforts, and to better link the data to health protective policy decisions.

Chemical Industry on the Defensive

Dow chemical protestThe chemical and pesticide industries clearly understand the power and importance of biomonitoring. Their response — reflected in parallel messaging from CropLife America to Dow Chemical Corporation and the American Chemistry Council — is to downplay the significance of the data, arguing that the simple presence of toxins in the body does not mean that "adverse effects are likely to occur." Not to worry, chemicals in our bodies are a fact of modern life.

The following is experted from the website biomonitoringinfo.org, a "nonprofit, nonpartisan" site sponsored by the American Chemistry Council:

In the modern world, synthetic chemicals are a part of every aspect of human life; they are critical to preventing and treating disease, to transportation, to agricultural production and to the many consumer products used for supporting the standard of living that we enjoy. Therefore, it is not surprising that many of these find their way into the soil, air, water and food and thus ultimately into the fluids and tissues of individuals.

This reassurance overlooks the increasingly powerful evidence that exposure to tiny doses of chemicals at certain windows of development — particularly during infancy and childhood — can have lifelong health effects. It also overlooks the fact that in many cases, there are much less toxic, healthier ways to maintain the "standard of living that we enjoy."