Dangerous and unknown chemicals are burdening human bodies
Dr. Ken Geiser speaks about how consumers can make healthier choices
By KIMBERLY PYE
University of Massachusetts, Lowell
According to the International Programme on Chemical Safety, about one thousand new chemicals enter the market every year. Many of the 100,000 chemicals currently used on a global scale are used to prevent and control diseases and make our lives safer and easier. Some of the same chemicals we rely on, however, may actually be endangering our health and poisoning our environment.
Dangerous chemicals don’t just pollute the land and sky – the human body can become a landfill for dangerous chemicals. “It’s called ‘body burden,’” says Ken Geiser, co-director of the Lowell Center for Sustainable Production. “What is our body burdened with at this point? The Centers for Disease Control, I think, are saying that we are carrying roughly a little over one hundred synthetic chemicals that were probably not carried in people’s bodies two generations ago, so we have loaded up quite a bit.”
According to Geiser, many of the substances found in human tissue are still unstudied. No one knows if they’re harmful, but no one knows they’re not. What is known is that these chemicals are persistent – that is, they are not well digested, metabolized, or excreted.
Some chemicals are bio-accumulative. Chemicals get into a body of water and then into the plankton in the water. Fish eat the plankton, other animals eat the fish, and eventually the chemical works its way to the highest animals on the food chain. “We’re some of the most high beasts on the food chain, so anything that’s getting into lower animals often gets up into us because of our diet,” says Geiser.
If these chemicals were only persistent and bio-accumulative, says Geiser, we wouldn’t have a problem. “The question is how toxic are they?” Brominade in flame retardants is one example of this kind of mysterious chemical. Flame retardants are used in many plastics, but they are not cross-linked effectively into the plastics so that during the aging of process of the plastic, whether it be a video camera or a child’s toy, small amounts of flame retardants fall off. The flame retardants accumulate in the carpet, and as people walk across the carpet the chemicals may be kicked up and breathed in. “It shows up in your body…and it stays in your body,” says Geiser. “We don’t necessarily know that flame retardants are a problem in the human body, but because they’re in everybody’s body, it’s worth us being thoughtful … because we’re not sure how we’ll get it out if it does turn out to be dangerous.”
Ken Geiser works with companies, hospitals, and other organizations that are concerned about the chemicals they are using and want to learn how to make their facility safer and more environmentally friendly. But there is plenty an individual can do, says Geiser. “Be more thoughtful,” he warns. The organic food movement is experiencing growing popularity, and people now have access to foods that don’t have a lot of pesticides on them. “Look at labels on products and see,” he says. “There’s a lot people can do.”
But are safer products more expensive? The answer is “no.” Geiser says that “there are many alternatives that are either comparable in price or sometimes cheaper in price.” There are also companies that are marketing some or all of their products as healthy and environmentally friendly. Aveda, a cosmetics company, places such a priority on the safety of their products that “environmental sustainability” is a key phrase on their homepage (aveda.com). L.L.Bean also has a list of its social responsibilities that includes “environment” and “paper procurement,” (llbean.com). Patagonia, Stoneyfield Farms, The Body Shop, SC Johnson, and Tom’s of Maine are also some of the many companies that support the health of their consumers and the planet.
In general, though, the United States has a long way to go. According to Geiser, “Europe and Japan tend to be areas where you have much more sensitivity to these issues. The U.S. has been much less sensitive…partly because of the way things are advertised and the lack of education in the population.” Certainly companies can change their practices, but until individual consumers are willing to do their part, our bodies will continue to suffer an unnecessary burden.