JP at center of toxins effort

June 8, 2007
By

David Taber

Eat a snack in your kitchen. Hop into your newly reupholstered car and drive to the dry cleaners to pick up your shirts. Every step of the way traces of toxic chemicals are seeping into your body.

There is formaldehyde present in the particleboard in kitchen cabinets. Phthalates are breaking down in your vinyl cars seats creating that new car smell, and perchlorethylene is used to remove those tough stains from your shirtsleeves.

Though not conclusive, there is a growing body of research indicating these chemicals, long known to be toxic, are more dangerous in smaller doses than previously suspected.

Based on this research, a coalition called the Alliance for a Healthy Tomorrow, which include the Jamaica Plain-based Massachusetts Public Health Association, is pushing for legislation to curb their use.

Increasingly sophisticated biomonitoring techniques can detect levels of these and other everyday toxins in humans in the parts-per-million, billion and even trillion range.

“Twenty years ago, in order to measure blood level PCBs or dioxins, you used to have to get a lot of blood or else a chunk of fat,” said Tom Watson, a Jamaica Plain resident and associate professor at the Boston University School of Public Health (BU-SPH).

Now a tube of blood, or, in the case of dioxins, a piece of hair, is plenty.

Armed with the data these techniques produce, scientists are beginning to link long-term low-level exposure to these toxins to a number of developmental and neurological disorders and diseases, including cancer.

The story of lead is an instructive example, said Jessica Nelson, a BU-SPH doctoral candidate who recently spoke at a forum in Jamaica Plain entitled “Measuring Chemicals in People.”

Lead has been known to be a neurotoxin for centuries, but it was only discovered to have toxic effects on brain development about 100 years ago. “What has been accepted as a safe level was originally 40 micrograms, then it was revised to ten, now people say it might be two or that there might be no safe level,” Nelson said.

Watson has been measuring Poly Brominated Diphenyl Ether (PBDE) levels in people. PBDE’s are toxins common in some electronics, including most televisions, and some foam furniture. Through biomonitoring he has been able to establish how people are exposed to the toxin.

“We were able to link the levels in people with the levels in dust from their houses,” Watson, who also spoke at the biomonitoring forum, said.

PBDEs have been linked to nervous and reproductive disorders in lab animals, but “we don’t really know what the health effects are in humans,” Watson said.

In general, the field of biomonitoring is at a unique juncture, Nelson said. Able to screen for extremely low levels of toxins, researchers can gather a great deal of information but the implications of that information are not always entirely clear.

“Biomonitoring only tells you if a chemical is present, not about its effects. Scientific studies have not kept pace. We can’t say with certainty what the implications of any information might be for health,” she said.

But the Alliance for a Healthy Tomorrow is not interested in waiting around for conclusive scientific proof that everyday exposure levels to common toxins are harmful. Judging by their signatures on the proposed Safer Alternatives to Toxic Chemicals bill, sponsored by Sen. Steven Tolman (D-Brighton), over 100 state legislators are not interested in waiting either.

“It is all about prevention,” said Eric Weltman, another JP resident and public policy director for MPHA.

While all of the evidence is not in, Weltman pointed to anecdotal evidence that toxins in our environment are having an adverse effect on public health.

“We are seeing significant increases in certain cancers and developmental diseases. It may be hard to see the connection between exposure and illness, its not like a gun where you get shot and you know you are hurt,” he said.

In 2006, the U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention reported that one in six children in the United States has a developmental disability, most involving the nervous system.

The bill would empower the state-funded Toxic Use Reduction Institute at the University of Massachusetts of Lowell to develop a set of priorities for chemicals to be phased out in favor of non-toxic alternatives, Elizabeth Fahey, Legislative Director for Sen. Tolman.

Companies would be provided with technical and financial assistance, but would be required to transition to state approved non-toxic alternatives, Fahey said.

The Department of Environmental Protection would enforce the decisions, and businesses found in violation would have to pay fines, which would go into a fund to assist transitions.

With overwhelming support in the house and senate, “I think it has a good chance of passing this year,” Fahey said of the bill.

The European Union has a similar statute, but, said Leise Jones, a JP resident and Toxic Campaign Organizer for Clean Water Action, another group in the Alliance for a Healthy Tomorrow, “Nothing like this has ever been proposed before in any state. It is very big.”