Today the air is clear, and the river free of effluents—a visible testament to the success of the U. But my Axys test results read like a chemical diary from 40 years ago. My blood contains traces of several chemicals now banned or restricted, including DDT in the form of DDE, one of its breakdown products and other pesticides such as the termite-killers chlordane and heptachlor. The levels are about what you would expect decades after exposure, says Rozman, the toxicologist at the University of Kansas Medical Center. My childhood playing in the dump, drinking the water, and breathing the polluted air could also explain some of the lead and dioxins in my blood, he says.
I went to college at a place and time that put me at the height of exposure for another set of substances found inside me—PCIBs, once used as electrical insulators and heat-exchange fluids in transformers and other products. PCBs can lurk in the soil anywhere there's a dump or an old factory. About miles kilometers downstream is the city of Poughkeepsie, where I attended Vassar College in the late s. PCBs, oily liquids or solids, can persist in the environment for decades. In animals, they impair liver function, raise blood lipids, and cause cancers. Some of the different PCBs chemically resemble dioxins and cause other mischief in lab animals: reproductive and nervous system damage, as well as developmental problems.
But until then, GE legally dumped excess PCBs into the Hudson, which swept them all the way downriver to Poughkeepsie, one of eight cities that draw their drinking water from the Hudson.
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In , a mile GE has spent million dollars on the cleanup so far, dredging up and disposing of PCBs in the river sediment under the supervision of the EPA. It is also working to stop the seepage of PCBs into the river from the factories. Birds and other wildlife along the Hudson are thought to have suffered from the pollution, but its impact on humans is less definitive. One study in Hudson River communities found a 20 percent increase in the rate of hospitalization for respiratory diseases, while another, more reassuringly, found no increase in cancer deaths in the contaminated region.
But among many of the locals, the fear is palpable. Ed Fitzgerald of the State University of New York at Albany, a former staff scientist at the state department of health, is conducting the most thorough study yet of the health effects of PCBs in the area. He says he has explained to Prevost and other residents that the risk from the wells was probably small because PCBs tend to settle to the bottom of an aquifer. Eating contaminated fish caught in the Hudson is a more likely exposure route, he says.
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I didn't eat much Hudson River fish during my college days in the s, but the drinking water in my dorm could have contained traces of the PCBs pouring into the river far upstream. Or maybe not. Back home in San Francisco, I encounter a newer generation of industrial chemicals—compounds that are not banned , and, like flame retardants, are increasing year by year in the environment and in my body. Sipping water after a workout, I could be exposing myself to bisphenol A, an ingredient in rigid plastics from water bottles to safety goggles.
Bisphenol A causes reproductive system abnormalities in animals. My levels were so low they were undetectable—a rare moment of relief in my toxic odyssey. And that faint lavender scent as I shampoo my hair? Credit it to phthalates, molecules that dissolve fragrances, thicken lotions, and add flexibility to PVC, vinyl, and some intravenous tubes in hospitals. The dashboards of most cars are loaded with phthalates, and so is some plastic food wrap.follow
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Heat and wear can release phthalate molecules, and humans swallow them or absorb them through the skin. Because they dissipate after a few minutes to a few hours in the body, most people's levels fluctuate during the day. Like bisphenol A, phthalates disrupt reproductive development in mice. An expert panel convened by the National Toxicology Program recently concluded that although the evidence so far doesn't prove that phthalates pose any risk to people, it does raise "concern," especially about potential effects on infants.
I scored higher than the mean in five out of seven phthalates tested. One of them, monomethyl phthalate, came in at Leo Trasande speculates that some of my phthalate levels were high because I gave my urine sample in the morning, just after I had showered and washed my hair. My inventory of household chemicals also includes perfluorinated acids PFAs —tough, chemically resistant compounds that go into making nonstick and stain-resistant coatings.
In animals these chemicals damage the liver, affect thyroid hormones, and cause birth defects and perhaps cancer, but not much is known about their toxicity in humans. Long-range pollution left its mark on my results as well: My blood contained low, probably harmless, levels of dioxins, which escape from paper mills, certain chemical plants, and incinerators.
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In the environment, dioxins settle on soil and in the water, then pass into the food chain. They build up in animal fat, and most people pick them up from meat and dairy products. And then there is mercury, a neurotoxin that can permanently impair memory, learning centers, and behavior.
Coal-burning power plants are a major source of mercury, sending it out their stacks into the atmosphere, where it disperses in the wind, falls in rain, and eventually washes into lakes, streams, or oceans. There bacteria transform it into a compound called methylmercury, which moves up the food chain after plankton absorb it from the water and are eaten by small fish. Large predatory fish at the top of the marine food chain, like tuna and swordfish, accumulate the highest concentrations of methylmercury—and pass it on to seafood lovers.
For people in northern California, mercury exposure is also a legacy of the gold rush years ago, when miners used quicksilver, or liquid mercury, to separate the gold from other ores in the hodgepodge of mines in the Sierra Nevada. Over the decades, streams and groundwater washed mercury-laden sediment out of the old mine tailings and swept it into San Francisco Bay. I don't eat much fish, and the levels of mercury in my blood were modest.
But I wondered what would happen if I gorged on large fish for a meal or two. Both were caught in the ocean just outside the Golden Gate, where they might have picked up mercury from the old mines.
That night I ate the halibut with basil and a dash of soy sauce; I downed the swordfish for breakfast with eggs cooked in my nonstick pan. Twenty-four hours later I had my blood drawn and retested. My level of mercury had more than doubled, from 5 micrograms per liter to a higher-than-recommended Mercury at 70 or 80 micrograms per liter is dangerous for adults, says Leo Trasande, and much lower levels can affect children. It's a lot harder to dodge the PBDE flame retardants responsible for the most worrisome of my test results.
My world—and yours—has become saturated with them since they were introduced about 30 years ago. Scientists have found the compounds planetwide, in polar bears in the Arctic, cormorants in England, and killer whales in the Pacific. Bergman, the Swedish chemist, and his colleagues first called attention to potential health risks in when they reported an alarming increase in PBDEs in human breast milk, from none in milk preserved in to an average of four ppb in The compounds escape from treated plastic and fabrics in dust particles or as gases that cling to dust.
People inhale the dust; infants crawling on the floor get an especially high dose. Bergman describes a family, tested in Oakland, California, by the Oakland Tribune, whose two small children had blood levels even higher than mine.
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When he and his colleagues summed up the test results for six different PBDEs, they found total levels of ppb in the five-year-old girl and ppb—twice my total—in the month-old boy. In , researchers in Sweden fed young mice a PBDH mixture similar to one used in furniture and found that they did poorly on tests of learning, memory, and behavior. Linda Birnbaum, an EPA expert on these flame retardants, says that researchers will have to identify many more people with high PBDE exposures, like the Oakland family and me, before they will be able to detect any human effects.
Bergman says that in a pregnant woman my levels would be of concern. No one knows for sure.
Any margin of safety may be narrowing. In a review of several studies, Ronald Hites of Indiana University found an exponential rise in people and animals, with the levels doubling every three to five years.
Pirkle, who is running the study, says my seemingly extreme levels may no longer be out of the ordinary. Given the stakes, why take a chance on these chemicals? Why not immediately ban them? In , Europe did just that for the penta- and octa-BDEs, which animal tests suggest are the most toxic of the compounds. California will also ban these forms by , and in Chemtura, an Indiana company that is the only U. Currently, there are no plans to ban the much more prevalent deca-BDEs. They reportedly break down more quickly in the environment and in people, although their breakdown products may include the same old pentas and octas.
Nor is it clear that banning a suspect chemical is always the best option.
Flaming beds and airplane seats are not an inviting prospect either.