News & Media Opinion Pieces Biomonitoring Study Detects Toxic Chemicals in Health Care Professionals

Biomonitoring Study Detects Toxic Chemicals in Health Care Professionals

From Beyond Pesticides, October 13, 2009 Click here

In a first ever investigation of toxic chemicals found in the bodies of doctors and nurses, Physicians for Social Responsibility (PSR) in partnership with American Nurses Association (ANA) and Health Care Without Harm (HCWH) released the Hazardous Chemicals In Health Care report on October 8th. The inquiry found that all of the 20 participants had toxic chemicals associated with health care in their bodies. Each participant had at least 24 individual chemicals present, four of which are on the recently released US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) list of priority chemicals for regulation. These chemicals are all associated with chronic illness and physical disorders.

The Hazardous Chemicals in Health Care report offers preliminary indicators of what the broader health care community may be experiencing. The project tested for 62 distinct chemicals in six categories: bisphenol A, mercury, perflourinated compounds, phthalates, polybrominated diphenyl ethers, and triclosan. The chemicals tested in the investigation are used in products common to the health care setting, from baby bottles, hand sanitizer, and medical gauges, to industrial paints, IV bags and tubes and stain-resistant clothing. Twelve doctors and eight nurses, two in each of 10 states were tested for the presence of six major chemical types used in the health care setting that are associated with health problems and are pervasive in our environment.

Study participant George Lundgren, M.D., a family practice physician from Minneapolis Minnesota said upon learning his results “When you do find out some of the specific unnatural chemicals in your body it is hard to deny, minimize, rationalize or justify their presence. It is disturbing to know the only body I have is permanently contaminated.”

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) National Biomonitoring Project has found that synthetic chemicals linked to health problems are present in every American. Overall, PSR’s test results were consistent with the findings by the CDC, with the exception of a specific type of toxic chemical, dimethyl phthalate, which was found at levels above the CDC’s 95th percentile. Future biomonitoring may illuminate a work source of exposure to dimethyl phthalate, which is used in hair spray and other personal care items, rocket fuel and more. Dimethyl phthalate was also registered for use by the US EPA as an insect repellent, but the 32 different insecticide products containing this chemical, often along with DEET, were cancelled back in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

According to the report, 15 of the 20 study participants had triclosan in their bodies, mirroring CDC’s finding that 74.6% of 2003-2004 samples contained triclosan. PSR’s new biomonitoring study also found three times more triclosan in participants urine than in CDC’s study, although the study’s maximum was below CDC’s 95th percentile.

Other findings include :
• Eighteen of the same chemicals were detected in every single participant;
• All 20 participants had at least five of the six major types of chemicals tested;
• Thirteen participants tested positive for all six of these major chemical types; and,
• All participants had bisphenol A, phthalates, PBDEs and PFCs, priority chemicals for regulation by the EPA and associated with chronic illness such as cancer and endocrine malfunction.

“Simply put, we are being ‘polluted’ by exposure to chemicals used in health care. This study demonstrates the urgent need to find safer alternatives to toxic chemicals whenever possible; to demand adequate information on the health effects of chemicals; and to require manufacturers to fully disclose the potential risks of their products and their components, for the safety of both health care professionals and the communities we serve,” added ANA President Rebecca M. Patton, MSN, RN, CNOR.

“Stronger laws are necessary to keep us safe from toxic chemicals. In 33 years, the EPA has tested for safety only 200 and banned only five of the more than 80,000 chemicals in commerce. We need to do better to protect public health,” says Charlotte Brody, RN, Health Care Without Harm Board Member, registered nurse, and National Field Director for Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families.

Regulated by both the FDA and US EPA, triclosan is an antibacterial used in hundreds of common consumer products such as soaps, cosmetics, deodorants, toys, and even clothing. Such widespread use in everyday consumer products can contribute to the rise of resistant bacteria, lessening their effectiveness, and they can affect the environment in runoff and wastewater. A U.S Geological Survey (USGS) study found that triclosan is one of the most detected chemicals in U.S. waterways and at some of the highest concentrations, because it is so frequently used in households and washed down the drains.

Scientific studies indicate that widespread use of triclosan causes a number of serious health and environmental problems. Among these issues is the resistance to antibiotic medications and bacterial cleansers, a problem for all people, but especially vulnerable populations such as infants and the elderly. Triclosan is also a known endocrine disruptor and has been shown to affect male and female reproductive hormones, which could potentially increase risk for breast cancer. A recent study found that triclosan alters thyroid function in male rats. Other studies have found that due to its extensive use in consumer goods, triclosan and its metabolites are present in fish, human milk, serum, urine, and foods. Further, the pesticide can also interact with other chemicals to form dioxin and chloroform, thereby exposing consumers to even more dangerous chemicals.

Washing with soap and water is essential. An FDA panel concluded that triclosan soaps are no more effective than washing with soap and water. For more information, including tips on how to get triclosan out of your school, office or community, or visit Beyond Pesticides’ Triclosan program page.

Although the new biomonitoring study did not look at pesticides, these toxic chemicals are also present in people’s bodies and are commonly used in hospitals and health care facilities. For information on pesticide use and pest management in the health care sector and the conversion to nonchemical practices, see Beyond Pesticides’ Healthy Hospitals program page and the collaborative report by Beyond Pesticides and Health Care Without HarmHealthy Hospitals: Controlling Pests Without Harmful Pesticides and the most recent report, Taking Toxics Out of Maryland’s Health Care Sector