Understanding Body Burdens
There is a sharp pinch and then not much else except a slight, unsettling sensation of something just under my skin. I watch as vial after vial fills quickly. There are fourteen altogether. Fourteen vials that hold my secrets and tell my story. Fourteen vials whose contents I have long wondered about. Fourteen vials that will reveal just how polluted I have become.
I've spent a good deal of my life talking about what's likely to be in the blood that's in these vials. It's the same thing that studies say is carried in the blood of virtually every man, woman, and child in the country: a cargo of synthetic chemicals that disrupt the human body's hormonal system, trigger carcinogenic mutations, depress the immune system, and interfere with reproduction and development.
We have these substances hiding inside us because we inhabit a world that is awash in chemicals. No one knows exactly how many are out there, but current estimates suggest that some 80,000 different compounds are produced around the world each year. Some of these chemicals are highly specialized materials made in tiny amounts. Others are produced by the tanker-load every day. Some are sprayed on our fields and in our forests. Others end up in the consumer products we use every day in our homes.
What most of these materials have in common is that they are largely unregulated. The companies that sell them are allowed to do so with relatively few restrictions. The packaging they provide is often riddled with informational holes -- deceptive at best, fraudulent at worst. And those who use these chemicals are given little in the way of meaningful safety instructions if they're given any at all.
What happens next has been happening for decades, and it's no surprise: The chemicals get loose and start going where they shouldn't. Molecule by molecule, like an invisible army, they march relentlessly into our air and our water. They enter our soil and our food. They get inside our children and ourselves.
This is called our body burden -- the slow, steady accumulation in our blood and in our tissues of the chemicals we unknowingly absorb every day.
Most of these synthetic materials have been created during the last century, and nature doesn't know what to do with them. No microbes have evolved to render them harmless, and the forces of sun and water are unable to break their powerful molecular bonds.
Once they're off the leash, these chemicals are able to persist in the environment for many years. They wander far and wide from their original source and work their way into every environmental nook and cranny. Because they are fat-soluble, they tend to naturally dissolve into animal fatty tissues. This means that when they get inside us, they don’t simply pass through and get excreted by our digestive systems. Instead, they tend to migrate to parts of the body where their molecular shape makes it easy for them to take up residence. Once there, the ability of our fatty cells to absorb them changes into an ability to retain them. That's how these chemicals are able to travel up the food chain and build up inside our bodies. That's why those we ingest today are added to those we ingested yesterday and tomorrow's encounters will make us more polluted still.
If these chemicals were harmless, I wouldn't care about my body burden or even necessarily about the tens of thousands of chemicals drifting unseen through our days. But they're far from safe. They're making us sick in some of the worst ways possible and turning our world into a giant experiment in which you and I are the unsuspecting guinea pigs.
I wanted to understand my own body burden. What chemicals were coursing through my bloodstream? Where did they come from, and what could I do about it?
So in September 2008 I watched as the nurse drew blood from my arm. The samples were sent to four separate labs in the U.S., Canada, and Europe, which tested them for 74 different chemical pollutants. A few weeks ago, I finally got the results back, and for someone like me who has gone the extra mile to live as healthy as possible, it was a real eye-opener.
Over the course of the next month or so, I'll share some of the secrets my body has been hiding and explain what it means for me, for you, and for our kids. In doing this, however, I don't want to look back as much as I want us to I look forward. The past is not as important as the present, and tomorrow matters more than today. So the conversation we need to have is not one of regret or recrimination. It should be about using every means possible to make sure that our kids never have to look at a lab report anything like the one sitting on my desk. If we can use what we know about our bodies' secrets to get us to that place, then perhaps our burdens will have been a weight worth carrying.
Measuring Body Burdens
Unfortunately, understanding your body burden is something few people are currently able to do. There is no standard test you can request. Instead, a body burden test is a complicated process that you must design and initiate yourself with the help of your doctor. It will involve multiple laboratories, a specified list of chemicals to be looked for, and a blood withdrawal whose sheer volume is not for the faint-hearted. It can also cost in excess of $10,000, a price tag that puts it out of reach for most of us.
My own test was done on behalf of all my friends, readers, and fellow environmentalists. It’s a representative sample, a snapshot of a relatively typical body that’s lived a fairly common lifestyle and could just as easily be yours or that of someone you love. While the details may vary, experts say that the overall picture my body burden paints is likely to be very similar to any test results that you yourself would receive.
If you are interested in your own test, however, you have two options: You can look for and participate in a government sponsored study of body burdens, which take place from time to time. Or talk with your doctor about putting one together.