Friday, April 04, 2008

Presentation by Ken Cook of Environmental Working Group calls attention to industrial chemicals found in humans

Presentation by Ken Cook of Environmental Working Group calls attention to industrial chemicals found in humans

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By my count nearly 60 people came out to the Champaign Public Library this past Tuesday evening for a presentation by Ken Cook, who is president of the Washington D.C.-based Environmental Working Group, an organization that describes itself as using “the power of public information to protect public health and the environment.” If you weren’t there you missed hearing from an articulate and entertaining speaker about how industrial chemicals show up in human bodies, and about changes in individual behavior and public policy that could help to reduce our exposure to such chemicals.

The title of Cook’s presentation, “10 Americans—287 chemicals” referred to a 2004 project conducted by Environmental Working Group, which analyzed blood samples taken from the umbilical cords of ten newborn babies from around the country and found in them 287 industrial chemicals. The point of working with such samples was to show that these chemicals show up in people’s bodies when they are most vulnerable and before they are ever exposed to pollution directly. Among the chemicals found were many that are known to cause cancer or other threats to health at some level, as well as many whose impacts on people have never been studied.

In the original press material from the “10 Humans” project Cook acknowledged that “detection of a chemical is not [itself] an indication of a risk to health.” But in his presentation Tuesday evening he implied that the ubiquity of industrial chemicals may explain some disturbing trends in the health of Americans over the past three decades, including everything from our high rates of cancer to increasing incidence of certain birth defects and ADHD.

Cook took pains to address the chemical industry’s standard response to reports such as “10 Humans--287 Chemicals” which is to question whether compounds found at levels of parts-per-billion could really have an impact on the functioning of the human body. In doing so he pointed out that many useful and widely known pharmaceuticals—including hormones used for birth control, as well as treatments for depression and many other conditions—achieve their desired effects at levels of parts-per-billion.

Cook allowed that highly conscientious individuals can avoid many chemicals by the consumer choices they make. But he also acknowledged that it is difficult and time-consuming to figure out what’s in many of the products we buy. In part that’s because the only federal law regulating chemicals in consumer products—the Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976—doesn’t require testing for potential impacts on human health and safety in the same way laws governing pharmaceuticals or pesticides do.

Cook concluded his presentation by pointing out that there is legislation on the horizon at both the state and federal levels that would remedy the shortcomings of the 1976 Act, which has never been updated. In Illinois, State Representative Naomi Jakobsson, who sponsored Cook’s talk, plans to introduce a bill to ban phthalates, which are a particular concern in plastic products made for babies and small children. At the federal level legislation dubbed the Safe Kids Chemical Act, which was first introduced back in 2005, is likely to be brought up again in the next couple of months.