Stories from the Field

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At work in the lab

Biomonitoring makes the issue of toxic chemicals very personal: we are all contaminated. Whether the data comes from large-scale national testing or a sample size of 8, evidence of toxins coursing through the human body is powerful. Particularly sobering are the studies of amniotic fluid, cord blood and breastmilk that prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that infants come into the world pre-polluted, and that nature's first, best food is compromised.

Small studies give a human face to chemical body burden data.

Biomonitoring studies fall into two general categories: large-scale, long-term studies conducted by government agencies, and smaller studies focused in specific communities or targeted groups. Both types of studies are valuable, providing very different types of information.

Large Studies ID Trends & Problem Chemicals

Test tubesThe largest U.S. biomonitoring study is a national survey conducted every few years by researchers at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). CDC released it's fourth National Report on Human Exposure to Environmental Chemicals in 2009, reporting the results of blood and urine tests on 2,400 people throughout the United States for 212 chemicals (including 48 pesticides).

While CDC's researchers look for only a fraction of the estimated 700 chemicals we each carry in our bodies, the study provides the most comprehensive body burden data set available. CDC expands the list of chemicals they look for in each of their studies; the next report is expected in 2011.

A few examples of other large-scale studies looking at chemicals in our bodies:

  • Agricultural Health Study: 89,000 pesticide applicators and their spouses participate in this ongoing study, conducted jointly by the National Cancer Institute, National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, National Institutes of Health and Environmental Protection Agency.
  • Children's Total Exposure to Persistent Pesticides: EPA measured exposure among 257 preschool children (ages 2 to 5 years) to more than 50 different pesticides and other chemicals.
  • Human Biomonitoring of Environmental Chemicals in Canada: Canadian health agencies biomonitored approximately 5,600 Canadians between the ages of 6 and 79 years at 15 sites across the country. The second round of testing is underway and will be released in 2011.
  • Human Biomonitoring for Europe: A consortium of scientists and public health officials from 27 countries are working to coordinate and harmonize the dozens of biomonitoring efforts in European countries.

California is in the process of launching the first statewide biomonitoring program, designed to monitor chemical exposure levels, identify specific chemicals and communities of concern, assess the effectiveness of efforts to decrease exposure to specific chemicals.

Smaller Studies Personalize Pollution

My levels are amont the highest of all the participants. I worry most about my children who, like all children, are especially vulnerable to damage from pesticides. - Luz Medellin Rodriguez, Lindsay biomonitoring project participant.

Biomonitor project participant

New York's Mount Sinai School of Medicine conducted a small biomonitoring study in 2003, in collaboration with the Environmental Working Group and Commonweal. The resulting report, Body Burden: The Pollution in People documented 167 industrial chemicals and pesticides in the blood and urine of the nine people tested. Though the sample size for The Pollution in People was not statistically significant, the study was unique in providing individual profiles and personal reactions to test results, giving a human face to the chemical body burden data.

Many similar studies followed. Some have focused on communities at high risk of chemical contamination, others on groups sharing common health effects. Here we highlight just a few of the dozens of powerful biomonitoring projects conducted in recent years.

  • BioDrift in Lindsay, CA: PAN's groundbreaking study with Commonweal and El Quinto Sol combined biomonitoring with drift catching. The community used the data to press for (and win) larger buffer zones for some pesticide applications.
  • St. Lawrence Island, AK: A study of contaminants in the blood of the Yu'pik people on Saint Lawrence Island found significant contamination with persistent pesticides and PCBs. The study, funded by the National Institute of Environmental Heath Sciences, created a media furor in Alaska and beyond. 
  • Moms & POPs project: A global project using biomonitoring data to support breastfeeding, empower mothers, and protect communities against persistent organic pollutants.
  • Body Burden: The Pollution in Newborns: This joint Commonweal/Environmental Working Group project tested the cordblood of 10 newborn infants, and found an average of 200 industrial chemicals and pesticides.
  • Mind Disrupted: 12 leaders for the learning and developmental disabilities community had their bodies tested for a set of chemicals known or suspected to affect the nervous system.
  • UK's Biomonitoring Tour: 155 people -- including members of Parliament and prominent journalists -- were tested for more than 70 chemicals, with an average of 27 found in each person tested. The 2003 study fed directly into debates in Europe about new policy approaches to chemicals.

Commonweal's Biomonitoring Resource Center includes many resources and information on recent studies, as does the Environmental Working Group's Human Toxome Project.