Doctors and nurses in 10 states, including Maine, tested positive for at least 24 different toxic chemicals in their blood and other body fluids in a study released Thursday by the national organization Physicians for Social Responsibility.
The small study, with a total of just 20 participants, is the first to measure the presence of environmental chemicals in the bodies of health care professionals. The study aims to raise awareness in the medical community about the prevalence of toxic substances in the environment as well as to support the overhaul of a 1976 federal law that regulates the chemical industry.
“We really are our environments. We assimilate the world around us, whether it is natural or artificial,” said Anne Perry, a nurse practitioner and a Democratic state representative from Calais. Perry, one of two Maine health professionals to participate in the study, said Thursday that she did so partly from curiosity about her exposure and partly to help build support for strengthening federal regulation of chemicals used in manufacturing.
Perry said she was “pleasantly surprised” to find she had no measurable amounts of either lead or mercury in her body. But she was disturbed to see she had the second-highest level among all participants of perfluorooctanoic acid, or PFOA, in her blood.
“That’s what they use for the protective coating on carpets and on the outside of microwave popcorn bags and on nonstick cooking pans,” Perry said. “I try to be as natural as possible, but you really don’t realize how much exposure you have from your environment.”
Washington County residents, already at risk from high rates of cancer and chronic disease, are especially vulnerable to the effects of toxic chemicals, Perry said.
Maine’s other participant in the study is Dr. Stephanie Lash, a Bangor neurologist and the immediate past president of the Maine Medical Association. Lash said Thursday that many toxic substances in the environment cause neurological damage in humans, including in the developing brains of infants and in the peripheral nervous systems of the elderly.
“So it really affects us at both ends of life,” she said.
Like Perry, Lash had virtually no trace of lead or mercury in her test results. But she had surprisingly high levels of Bisphenol A, perfluorinated compounds and phthalates — “the ubiquitous chemicals in plastics,” she said. Lash said she avoids drinking from plastic bottles of water or soda and doesn’t know why her levels are so high.
“The bottom line is that we know far too little about these things,” she said.
Mike Belliveau of the Bangor-based Environmental Health Strategy Center said Maine has been a leader in calling for tighter regulation of chemicals used in manufacturing. The 2008 Kids Safe Products Law requires the state Department of Environmental Protection to identify potentially dangerous chemicals used in consumer items for children and to phase them out of products sold in Maine. The law drew support from a 2007 study of Maine people who agreed to be tested for the presence of toxic chemicals in their bodies.
Belliveau said manufacturers should be required to demonstrate the safety of their products before marketing them, as pharmaceuticals companies must.
“There is no such requirement for the chemical industry,” he said.
Out of about 80,000 chemicals in common use, Belliveau said only five have been restricted since the Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976 was enacted.
Freeport physician Dr. Lani Graham is the former head of the Maine Bureau of Health and the current president of the Maine Chapter of Physicians for Social Responsibility. Though the new report is built on a very small sample population, she said, it is important.
“It draws attention to the fact that chemicals are out there, they get into our bodies and we really don’t know the long-term effects,” she said. The 1976 law “has been a complete paper tiger. It does not protect people from these toxic chemicals. It needs to be completely re-evaluated and reauthorized.”
A spokesman for the American Chemistry Council said Thursday the organization has not had time to evaluate the study. Mike Walls, vice president for regulatory and technical affairs, said monitoring the presence of chemicals in humans can be helpful in assessing the impact of chemicals in the environment. Although most substances measured in the new study have strong safety records, he said, the organization supports the “modernization” of the Toxic Substances Control Act.
“We will continue to work with the administration, Congress, states, regulatory agencies, our downstream partners, environmental groups and others with a stake in this issue to advance comprehensive reforms to enhance the way chemicals are managed,” Walls said.
On the Web: www.psr.org