What Kinds of Chemicals Are In Our Bodies?

There have been a few developments in the past week that indicate that we should probably pay more attention to the chemicals we are collecting in our bodies and what their impacts might be.

A study published last week in Environmental Health Perspectives looks at the presence of chemicals in the bodies of pregnant women, finding that 99 to 100 percent of pregnant women tested positive for a number of potentially hazardous chemicals. These include DDT, flame retardants, substances used to make non-stick pans, and phthalates, a variety of chemicals found in many beauty products and plastics. Tracey Woodruff, a professor at the University of California-San Francisco, conducted the study using data from the Centers for Disease Control.

While the study does not investigate how much risk those chemicals may pose to the women or their children, Woodruff notes in the school’s release that her results should encourage other researchers to take a closer look at the individual and cumulative impacts of the chemicals humans are exposed to on a daily basis:

“It was surprising and concerning to find so many chemicals in pregnant women without fully knowing the implications for pregnancy. Several of these chemicals in pregnant women were at the same concentrations that have been associated with negative effects in children from other studies. In addition, exposure to multiple chemicals that can increase the risk of the same adverse health outcome can have a greater impact than exposure to just one chemical,” Woodruff said.

The New York Times‘ Andy Revkin has a good post on why some of the headlines on this study may have been a bit misleading. But it’s certainly worth highlighting the need for additional research.

In a similar vein, the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences held a three-day summit last week looking at the role of environmental chemicals in the development of obesity and diabetes. The meeting was designed to plan a research agenda on the subject.

Several studies in the past year have investigated potential links between chemical exposure and obesity. (See this study exploring the impacts of prenatal exposure to the “obesogen” tributyltin for one example.) Jennifer McPartland, a scientist with the Environmental Defense Fund, examinedsome of the developing science in this area in a blog post Wednesday, “Do these chemicals make me look fat?”

Are we sure that there are negative effects from all the chemicals we are exposed to? Of course not. But we’re also not sure that they’re safe—particularly not when you’re considering the potential cumulative and compounded effects.