Is It In Us?

According to a study released last week by the Coalition for a Safe and Healthy Connecticut, the answer is a resounding yes.

Toxic chemicals were found in the bloodstreams of all 35 participants in a biomonitoring research study organized by a coalition of environmental and public-health organizations across the nation.

The study, titled “Is It In Us?”, included volunteers from seven states and tested for three types of industrial chemicals. The three substances — pthalates, bisphenol A and PBDEs — are commonly found in products such as shower curtains, tin cans, baby bottles, water bottles, shampoo, hairspray, couch cushions and computers, according to the report. These chemicals have been known to cause birth defects, mental retardation, cancer and other health problems.

“It is really a crisis, but one that people aren’t really talking about,” Sarah Uhl, environmental health coordinator for Clean Water Action — a national non-profit working to reduce water and air pollution — said. “This is an issue where the federal government has left a gaping loophole in toxic chemical regulation.”

Uhl, who helped organize the study, said while the results were not surprising considering prior data from the Centers for Disease Control, the study is a chance to increase public awareness, support the push for safer alternatives and encourage people to make lifestyle change that will encourage people to pay more attention to the plastic products they use.

The study participants were drawn from a network of health coalitions, including CWA. Participants included several state legislators, including Connecticut, as well as school nurses, mothers and a middle school student.

“One of our goals was to bring a human face to the issue,” Uhl said. “We wanted to cultivate spokespeople who can speak from the heart, having been through the experience of being tested.”

Connecticut State Senator Toni Harp, who represents New Haven and West Haven took part in the study, said the results made her more aware of her own use of everyday products — especially plastics.

Like Uhl, Harp said there is a need for greater regulation on the federal, state or local levels.

“States should at least require that these additives that are in many of our products be listed, so that we’ll know when we are interacting with the kinds of substances that can cause us harm,” Harp said.

Other study participants said they agree that the study is an eye-opener.

Volunteer Laura Anderson, a mother of two living in Connecticut, said she has started paying more attention to the cosmetics and food containers that she uses since learning of the study’s results. Several other participants said they now eschew plastic, foam and metal in favor of glass containers.

“I thought I would only have a small amount,” Anderson said. “I live a healthy lifestyle, and it was a little surprising. Now, when I go to the grocery store, I think about what I’m buying.”

While the results of the study were “horrifying” for some, many participants interviewed said the new knowledge gained from the findings gives them extra power and responsibility.

Ethan Berkowitz, a former member of the Alaska state legislature, said responsibility for controlling the toxins rests with individual manufacturers and the government. If the manufacturers are aware of the toxic chemicals in their products, they can resort to either litigation or regulation, he said.

“When you know, you can take action,” Berkowitz said. “Given a choice between litigation and regulation, I hope [producers] choose regulation because it’s a more comprehensive solution.”

Advocates are trying to move beyond a piecemeal approach to banning toxins through litigation and specific policy, Uhl said. Instead, they are focusing on implementing broader regulations and searching for safe alternatives, following a plan similar to the European Union’s Registration, Evaluation and Authorization of Chemicals (REACH) regulations.

Most participants said they agree that while the results of the study were sobering, being aware of the prevalence of the chemicals allows them to change their behavior.

“The study alerted me to the health problems we have in our communities,” Alaska native Diane Benson said. “It raised concerns about how we regulate industries so that we can lessen the impact.”

The study was conducted only in Connecticut, Alaska, New York, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota and Illinois and tested for only three chemicals, but Uhl said there are no immediate plans for expanded testing because of the enormous resources the research requires.