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Tuesday, July 18, 2006 - Page updated at 02:09 PM


Guest columnists

Our polluted bodies

Special to The Times

As elected leaders, we try our best to understand and address the problems facing Washingtonians, from health care and education to traffic, housing and the environment. Last fall, we became test subjects in order to better understand — in a very personal way — yet another critical issue, the potential threat posed by polluting chemicals.

We agreed to have laboratories specializing in highly sensitive chemical analysis test samples of our blood, hair and urine to determine whether certain toxic chemicals in our environment and everyday products would be found in our bodies.

In May, we and eight other state participants learned the disturbing outcome of this research. According to the test results, each of us tested positive for at least 26, and as many as 39, toxic chemicals.

The chemicals tested for included: pesticides; toxic flame retardants (PBDEs); heavy metals such as lead, mercury and arsenic; PFCs such as chemicals used in Teflon and Gortex; and even DDT and PCBs, which already are banned in Washington but still are turning up in our bodies.

Serving as test subjects for toxic chemicals has been a shocking experience. Reading about chemicals in the newspaper is one thing — receiving test results about the levels of these chemicals in your own body is quite another.

These chemicals were in some cases found at or above levels that have been linked to serious health problems, such as learning deficits and infertility. Scientists and doctors know enough now to believe there is serious cause for concern about the number and levels of chemicals turning up in people.

Now that we know what toxic chemicals are in our bodies, we have to wonder how they got there. Food with pesticides residue, thermometers or dental fillings with mercury and Teflon nonstick pans are fairly obvious sources.

But in some cases the sources are surprising: mattresses, couches and chairs; TV sets and computers; decks, fences and playgrounds with arsenic-treated wood; lead in art supplies, paint and even some ceramic dishware; cosmetics and cleaners with fragrance; packaged foods such as microwave popcorn; stain- and water-resistant gear and clothing; and vinyl shower curtains, doors and windows.

Clearly, the system is broken when our health is threatened by everyday activities and products. Current federal and state laws do not adequately prevent harmful toxic chemicals from entering products, food and the environment. Of the 82,000 chemicals in use today, a mere fraction has been tested for toxicity.

It took decades for dangerous chemicals such as DDT and PCBs to be banned, even after mounting evidence showed they were damaging human health and the environment. Yet, they are still turning up in people's blood samples 30 years later.

What can we do to protect ourselves, our families and future Washingtonians?

Our study showed that even people who lead the most conscientious, healthy lifestyles tested positive for many of these pollutants. In other words, even if you eat organic foods and purchase nontoxic cleaners, cosmetics, furniture and electronics, chances are you will still be exposed to dangerous chemicals.

These substances are invisible yet present in the air, water, soil and everyday products. This is because there is not adequate screening to ensure that the chemicals used in the manufacture of thousands of products are safe.

We're proud that Washington state is a national leader in tackling this troubling problem, having passed in 1998 a groundbreaking policy to eliminate persistent toxic chemicals, and more recently passing legislation to restrict the use of mercury. However, these steps are not enough.

We need to act to address the increasing threat posed by the common use of toxic flame retardants (PBDEs). But focusing on only one chemical at a time isn't going to protect people from the chemicals we now know are harmful. We support a more-comprehensive approach, one that would ensure that only the safest chemicals are allowed in products that we use.

All 10 test subjects agreed the results have spurred them to think harder about their choices, but they acknowledged that personal changes are not enough to protect them and their families. We need change at the federal level to address this threat faced by all Americans.

But lacking that, we should do what we can at the state level. As elected leaders, we join this group in calling for comprehensive policy change in Washington state.

The good news is that innovative business and industry leaders, as well as state and local government agencies, have begun to phase out some dangerous chemicals. Safer, alternative products and manufacturing methods are available, and where they aren't, we need to put our resources into finding them.

Washington state should not only be the most beautiful place in the world to live, work and raise a family, but also a truly healthy place to call home.

Sen. Lisa Brown D-Spokane, is majority leader in the state Senate. Sen. Bill Finkbeiner R-Kirkland, represents the 45th Legislative District. They were among 10 leading citizens who took part in a study whose results were released May 23 by the Toxic-Free Legacy Coalition, which is comprised of environmental and health groups.

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company