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On July 21, 2005, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is set to release its Third National Report on Human Exposure to Environmental Chemicals, detailing the latest data on the “body burden” of chemicals carried by U.S. residents. The chemicals measured in the Third Report include organophosphate pesticides, organochlorine pesticides, pyrethroid pesticides, and herbicides; lead, mercury, cadmium, tungsten, and other metals; polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs); dioxins, furans, and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs); phthalates; phytoestrogens; and, environmental tobacco smoke.

This is the first CDC report to track levels of synthetic pyrethroid pesticides, now the most widely used class of insecticides. During a press conference, CDC director Julie L. Gerberding, MD, stated that she was not surprised at the levels at which pyrethroids were detected in the study given that they are used so ubiquitously in the U.S. Dr. Gerberding did not link the exposure to any specific health effects, but said the data would be used in further studies to track the adverse effects of these chemicals.

The report finds the following pesticide and/or their metabolites in greater than 50% of the subjects tested: permethrin, cypermethrin, deltamethrin, chlorpyrifos, methyl and ethyl parathion, 2,4-D, lindane, chlordane, 2,5-dichlorophenol (moth balls) and DDT. Metabolites of the insect repellant DEET was detected in about 10% of subjects.

Environmentalists and public health advocates are concerned, but not also surprised by the huge body burden of toxic chemicals presented in the preliminary report data. “We live in a toxic world – we breathe air contaminated by pesticide drift, eat food with dangerous pesticide residues and drink water contaminated by leaching chemicals. At the same time that scientists are detecting these toxic chemicals in our bodies, we are learning that environmental illnesses such as cancer and asthma are on the rise,” said John Kepner, project director at Beyond Pesticides. Environmentalists say the report only reinforces the need to reduce and eliminate exposure to these chemicals in our homes, schools and workplaces, on our lawns and in our food system.

Of the 48 commonly used pesticides in schools, which include many of the chemicals CDC has detected in the human body, 22 are probable or possible carcinogens, 26 have been shown to cause reproductive effects, 31 damage the nervous system, 31 injure the liver or kidney, 41 are sensitizers or irritants, and 16 can cause birth defects. Of the 36 most commonly used lawn pesticides, 13 can cause cancer, 14 cause birth defects, 11 cause reproductive problems, 21 are neurotoxic, 15 are kidney and liver toxicants, and 30 are sensitizers or irritants.

CDC also finds that people carry in their bodies pesticides that are linked to asthma, chemicals that both cause and promote respiratory illness. In a scientific review of the connection between asthma and pesticides, Beyond Pesticides found that 16 million people suffer from asthma in the U.S. alone, including 1 of 8 school-aged children. Asthma is the leading cause of school absenteeism and the third most common cause for hospitalization in children under 15. Low-income populations, minorities, and children living in inner cities experience disproportionately higher morbidity and mortality due to asthma.

The Third Report covers the years 1999-2000 and 2001-2002 and provides blood and urine levels for 148 environmental chemicals, including 43 pesticides, measured in people who participated in CDC's National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES). This is an increase from 116 chemicals profiled in CDC’s second report, released in January 2003, and 27 in the first report, released in March 2001. In addition to covering more substances, the third report provides trend information for a few substances, as well as improved breakouts by categories such as age, sex, and race.

For example, the Third Report finds 3-Phenoxybenzoic acid, a metabolite of the pyrethroid insecticides permethrin, cypermethrin and deltamethrin, in more than 50% of the population. However, exposure was not uniform across the board. While exposure by age and gender had only slight variations (6-11 yrs - 0.325 µg/L urine concentration, 12-19 yrs 0.354 µg/L, 20-59 yrs - 0.314 µg/L; and, males - 0.328 µg/L, females - .0.315 µg/L), race played a greater factor (Mexican-Americans - 0.297 µg/L, non-Hispanic Blacks - 0.507 µg/L, non-Hispanic whites - 0.298 µg/L).

CDC’s first two exposure reports have demonstrated that: 1 in 12 women of child-bearing age have levels of mercury above the EPA safe level; levels of phthalates found in soft PVC plastic (DEHP) are higher in children than adults, and nearly all types of phthalates, especially those found in cosmetics, levels are higher in women than in men; and, Mexican-Americans have three times the level of DDT in their bodies compared to non-Hispanic Whites.

Last week, the advocacy organizations Environmental Working Group and Commonweal released a similar study that found 287 industrial chemicals, pesticides and other pollutants in umbilical cord blood, confirming that chemical exposure begins in the womb. The new study, Body Burden: The Pollution in Newborns, tested 10 American Red Cross cord blood samples for an unprecedented 413 industrial and consumer product chemicals. EWG’s Vice President for Research Jane Houlihan says that had it been able to test for more chemicals, it would almost certainly have detected them.

For more information, including the latest analysis of the CDC data, contact Beyond Pesticides. To view CDC’s Third National Report on Human Exposure to Environmental Chemicals, download a copy from the CDC website.

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