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The Danger Within Us?
[Rachel's Introduction: "Most people think there are laws in place that protect them from dangerous products," said Kathleen Curtis. "But that's just not the case."]
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By Cathleen F. Crowley, Staff Writer

Industrial chemicals found in shower curtains, soda cans and sofas were detected in the blood and urine of 35 volunteers, according to a national report released Thursday by a coalition of environmental groups.

The groups sponsored the study to demonstrate that Americans are absorbing hazardous chemicals from common household products. The coalition is advocating for government regulations to force manufacturers to stop using the chemicals.

Among the volunteers, Clifton Park's Heather Loukmas, 36, had the highest blood level of polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs), a flame retardant used in electronic equipment and furniture foam.

"We can assume that every American has some level of these chemicals in their body," Loukmas said during a news conference Thursday at the Capitol in Albany. Loukmas is executive director of the Learning Disabilities Association of New York State.

Scientists involved with the study traced her exposure back to Michigan where Loukmas grew up. In 1973, the Michigan Chemical Co. accidentally shipped a chemical called Firemaster to cattle farmers instead of Nutrimaster. The product was mixed in with cattle feed and contaminated thousands of people who consumed the meat and milk before the mistake was discovered.

Loukmas was 2 years old at the time, but the experts told her she probably passed it to her two children when she was pregnant.

The environmental groups hope to galvanize support for regulations like the ones adopted by the European Union. Earlier this year, the EU set new rules for 30,000 toxic substances and banned the most hazardous.

The volunteers, who come from across the country, were tested for three classes of chemicals used in plastics and flame retardants. The chemicals, phthalates, bisphenol-A and PBDEs, were targeted because animal studies have linked them to cancer, diabetes and birth defects and because they are found in everyday household products like water bottles, canned food, and computer screens.

The American Chemistry Council said Thursday that the study unnecessarily raises fears because the presence of the chemicals in blood and urine doesn't mean there is a significant health risk.

"To pose a health risk a chemical must exceed a threshold level in the body," the American Chemistry Council said in a statement. "All substances, including naturally occurring chemicals, and even water, can be innocuous at levels below threshold, and produce toxicity when levels exceed the threshold."

The problem with most of the 80,000 chemicals used in the production of consumer goods is that no one knows the threshold for humans.

"Most people think there are laws in place that protect them from dangerous products," said Curtis. "But that's just not the case."

The study titled "Is It In Us?" relied on a small sample of volunteers and was not meant to be a scientific study, merely a demonstration to raise public awareness. It was authored by Bobbi Chase Wilding and Kathleen Curtis of Clean New York and supported by the Commonweal Biomonitoring Resource Center and the Body Burden Work Group. The full study can be found at www.isitinus.org.

On average, the tests detected about 400 parts per billion of phthalates in the volunteers, 75 parts per billion of PBDEs and 1.5 parts per billion of bisphenol-A among the volunteers.

One part per million is the equivalent of one drop of food dye in 16,000 gallons of water or one second in 32 years.

While the chemical levels in the volunteers was minimal, Chase Wilding noted that Viagra takes just two parts per billion to achieve its effect.

Cathleen F. Crowley can be reached at ccrowley@timesunion.com.

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The study, "Is It In Us?" tested volunteers for three classes of chemicals commonly found in consumer products. Here's a closer look at the chemicals.

Phthalates

What they are: (THALL-ates) a group of industrial chemicals that add flexibility and resilience to plastic products; additive in fixatives, detergents and solvents.

Found in: Shower curtains, garden hoses, table clothes, vinyl flooring, inflatable swimming pools, plastic clothing such as raincoats, children's toys, automobile upholstery, carpets, time release capsules, soap, shampoo, hair spray, nail polish, deodorants and fragrances.

Health effects: Associated with lower sperm counts, the feminization of male genitalia in male fetuses, childhood asthma, reduced lung capacity

How can I reduce my exposure? Avoid PVC (vinyl) in home remodeling products, use a shower curtain made of natural fibers, polyester or nylon instead of vinyl; avoid plastics marked #3, and products that list "fragrance" as an ingredient; eat fresh food grown without pesticides.

Bisphenol-A

What they are: Production chemicals used in epoxy resin and polycarbonate plastic products; also called BPA

Found in: some water bottles, baby bottles, food storage and heating containers, the lining of metal food cans, dental sealants and toys

Health effects: In animal studies, BPA has been known to simulate estrogen and is associated with cancer and diabetes

How can I reduce my exposure? Use glass, stainless steel or polyethylene bottles (PETE, PET or #1 or #2 plastics) instead of polycarbonate (PC or #7) bottles; avoid heating food in polycarbonate containers; cut back on canned foods; ask your dentist about the ingredients before getting dental sealants. Polybrominated diphenyl ethers

What they are: A class of flame-retardant chemicals added to many products

Found in: Furniture foam, textiles, kitchen appliances, electronics like TVs and computer monitors, and in the fat of some food animals

Health effects: Associate with birth defects, cancer; neonatal exposure affects learning and memory

How can I reduce my exposure? Wash hands frequently; dust with a damp cloth; look for companies that have pledged to create PBDE-free products; choose lean meats and cooking methods that remove excess fat

Resources for finding products that do not use these chemicals:

http://www.healthybuilding.net;

http://www.householdproducts.nlm.nih.gov;

http://www.safecosmetics.org

http://www.ewg.org;

http://www.safer-products.org

http://www.thegreenguide.com