Toxic shocker

Several months ago I was invited along with 150 other people to have my blood tested for three groups of pretty nasty chemicals - organochlorines, PCBs and flame retardants. The idea, I was told by the Worldwide Fund for Nature, was to see how loaded I was with pesticides, insecticides and other widely used chemicals that are sprayed on crops, used in everyday materials like paints, or on furniture, carpets and everything from tellies to transistors.

I did not think much about it at the time, but as the doctor filled his phials it ocurred to me that it might throw up some real nasties. I remember being sprayed with pesticides in the Honduran banana fields only a few years ago. My childhood home in Lagos, Nigeria, was regularly fumigated with DDT against malaria. I went to school just a few miles from the Sellafield nuclear power station, which was always blowing up or leaking, and I have spent many a day cutting up asbestos and, as an environment correspondent, wandering around the most polluted factories on earth.

Moreover, my family, like most others in the 1960s, was chemically ignorant. We seldom washed our fruit, frequently ate grass, drank anything from a stream and sprayed our roses with whatever miracle cure that the chemical companies recommended. We never heard or heeded health warnings - if indeed there were any. Those were the days of macho, modern, chemical-dependent agriculture and, boy, the farmer whose fields we backed on to was a true pioneer.

Last week my test results came back, but the long lists of figures showing my exposure to 72 chemicals meant very little. I was certainly contaminated, but so what that I had 165.38 ng/g of p,p' DDE in my blood? Or 2.88 ng/g of flame retardant PBDE 47? I was rather pleased, and very surprised, that I had no exposure whatever to 36 of the listed chemicals, but all I could do was compare the results to those of the 150 other people who had taken part in the tests.

This was one of the first times anyone had tested a group of people so thoroughly for these chemicals, so there is little broad national data with which to compare the results, and there is no national or European programme to monitor chemical contamination. However, Lancaster University, who carried out the blood analyses, had recorded the highest, lowest and median results for the group. Some people, clearly, had been exposed to very high levels and others barely at all. One person had an organochloride pesticide burden for these groups of chemicals of 2,654 (a relative figure), wheras the median was just 7.11. My total chemical burden for all these chemicals was 534, yet someone had recorded 3,105, and the minimum was just 46.2. For DDT, I came in at 209, but someone must have breathed in a whole tub - recording 2,579. Everyone who took part - the group included politicians, journalists and ordinary members of the public - was offered counselling. Those who had alarmingly high individual readings were given medical advice.

But what did the results mean? For a start, it was pretty limited. I was tested for 72 chemicals, but there are 100,000 synthetic, manmade ones out in the environment, and 30,000 of them are traded in commercial quantities in the EU alone. In other words, I was not going to get a comprehensive picture of my total chemical burden or my likelihood to get cancers. But it was an alarming indicator.

Dr Asma Khan, a London consultant on hand to take people through their tests, was quite upbeat. "Nothing to worry about here," she said looking at the results. "You're well within the safe limits." But - and here was the catch - she emphasised that very little was known about the chemicals' long term effect on human health.

Many of them, she said, were first made in the 1960s and 70s, when manufacturers did not have to perform even half-decent safety tests. None of them had been tested on humans; no one knew how the cocktail of chemicals reacted together; no one could predict whether they might together or individually lead to illnesses or cancers; and no one knows which individual is tolerant at what level to which chemical. Even though the chemical industry tends to dismiss as alarmist people who question the safety of residues or traces of their products, the reality is that we just do not know much about what we are dealing with.

What was also shocking was that everyone tested had measurable quantities in their blood of all three groups of chemicals. The price of western development, it seems, is that we are all contaminated to some extent. Much of the residue found clearly came from people's diets, some from exposure to household insecticides or pesticides, and more from the chemicals liberally sprayed on furniture and carpets, or used in paints and televisions.

The second shocker, said the doctor, was that they all accumulate in body fat and are readily passed on to babies by mothers. A first child can expect to inherit up to 30% of the chemical load of its mother, a second child up to 20% and a third about 15%. Again, no one knows the effects this can have, say, on the cognitive development of infants, or in later life.

What was equally alarming, however, was that although many of the chemicals had been proved to be dangerous, and had been banned, they were still finding their way into people's bloodstream. The manufacture of PCBs, for instance, stopped in the 1970s after evidence that they build up in the environment. So common were they, that just about everyone in industrial countries has been exposed to them and still has detectable levels in their blood, fat, and breast milk.

Moreover, they are still part of the food chain, and are accumulating in fish which we eat. Human levels are widely thought to be declining after the bans, but a baby born today in Britain will almost certainly inherit a toxic load. It was the same with the organo-chlorine pesticide group of chemicals - which included real nasties like DDT, DDE, Lindane and HCBs. These, again, are mostly banned now, but some only very recently. These long-lasting chemicals were found in virtually all the samples. HCB was banned in the UK in 1975 and in the European Union since 1988, but it is still used in manufacturing. Its persistence and tendency to accumulate means it can travel around the globe. It has been found in air, water and organisms as far away as the Arctic, as well as in amniotic fluid, human placentas, foetuses, umbilical cord blood and human milk.

The flame retardants tested were equally worrying. Some are used extensively in textiles and plastics, others go into polyurethane foam for furniture and upholstery, others in electrical appliances. Some people tested had very high levels, others - myself included - comparatively low perhaps because my furniture is ancient and my carpets threadbare.

Tomorrow the EU will unveil the second draft of its new chemical legislation. After massive lobbying by environmental groups and the 20 giant companies who dominate the world chemical industry, it will propose to ban some chemicals which have been shown to be linked with proven carcinogens, and will impose far stricter safety tests on new chemicals coming on to the market. If and when it gets through the European parliament, a lot of the old dinosuar chemicals will have to properly tested, and order will be imposed on a regulatory system that is widely considered unable to cope.

But the changes will take years to work through and in the meantime, our accumulation of chemicals will continue. If you are remotely worried - and certainly the doctor thought it was wise to take great care - the advice of the medical profession is to take the kind of care that I never did. That means washing fruit well, avoiding garden spray where possible, protecting children, keeping toxins to a minimum and above all, minding what we eat.

"My advice is go organic," said the doctor looking at my results. "It's the best way to clear your system and to protect yourself and others. You never know what's out there."

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