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Shouldering My Body Burden

Posted on November 5, 2012

Carolyn fine friedman 2010By Carolyn Fine Friedman

With the recent resurgence of publicity around Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, which celebrated its 50th anniversary in September, I am reminded of my own journey to discover, accept, and increase public awareness of the frightening number and toxicity of chemicals in our environment and our bodies.

When I received the results of my biomonitoring study a few years ago, I felt a retching sensation.  Then, I did the only thing I could do upon getting confirmation that my body was riddled with risks that had suddenly become visible – I went into denial and put the results on the shelf to collect ‘toxic’ dust.  

This journey started in 2005, when Rachel’s Network initiated a strategic partnership with Environmental Working Group (EWG) to help expand their database of evidence that unregulated toxic chemicals were accumulating in human tissue, with the ultimate goal of helping EWG amplify the drumbeat for reform.  In 2006, I participated in Rachel’s Network’s first cohort of “Body Burden” testing along with 17 other members, some of whom had their children tested to measure the cross-generational ubiquity of chemical contamination.  I gave blood (and a few other bodily fluids) to the cause and waited in dread to see which industrial toxins had polluted my system.

My body burden included a toxic soup of substances known to cause cancer, birth defects, thyroid problems and more -- low perchlorate and PFCs, high phthalates, moderate PBDEs, an immeasurable amount of triclosan, and high levels of lead, mercury, and methyl mercury, which I learned from Dr. Sandra Steingraber at a Rachel’s Network meeting is a “saboteur of the brain.” 

Many of those chemicals are permanently lodged in my (and your) body, even though I didn't invite them in.  They traveled in through the products that we use every day:  the stuffing that makes my furniture comfortable (see a recent New York Times Magazine article “How Dangerous Is Your Couch?”), the makeup I don't admit to anyone I wear, the antibacterial soap by my kitchen and bathroom sinks, the lining inside cans of tomato sauce, plastic water bottles, etc.

There are more than 80,000 of these unregulated chemicals swimming around the planet right now.  Lord only knows which of my ailments are the result of the multiple chemicals I've been exposed to for half a century.  I recall reading a Boston Globe article entitled “Lead Exposure Linked to Depression Riskwhich stated that “the presence of lead in the blood -- even at what health officials say is a safe level -- is associated with an increased risk of depression and panic disorder in young and middle-aged adults.”   Finally, a rational explanation for my irrational fear of flying!

You might reassure yourself that the government must protect the public from damaging chemicals, but the law that pertains to them, the Toxics Substances Control Act of 1976 has sat impotently by as the number of chemicals and their use has exploded over the last 36 years.

The biomonitoring study by EWG was a powerful tool in a campaign that began in the late 1990's, first to figure out what harm these chemicals pose and then to work toward eliminating them from use.   Now, with an increasing number of partners and a strong coalition – the Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families coalition -- we are at a pivotal moment in the life of this debate.  There is a real chance that this campaign will culminate in a new law, if not in this session, hopefully after the November elections. 

This legislative opportunity and the passage of time have helped me move beyond denial of my “body burden” and given me new motivation to stop the inflow of toxic chemicals into our bodies and those of future generations. And, I am grateful that I am not a lone voice in this debate, as Rachel Carson was.  I have my fellow Rachel’s Network members, the wider environmental health community and, hopefully, YOU to join me.


This is why 1 in 3 teenagers and young women have irregular or no periods, and we and our animals grow more obese. And our body's immune system appears to be attacking itself. Yet, we are constantly being told that we as individuals are responsible for how our bodies react to the chemicals. And obese people are ridiculed more than ever. Those of us who succumbed early to the poisoning are just the canaries in the mine. We try to eat right, to purchase fresh food or at least something in a glass bottle instead of plastic. We do what we can. But we can't seem to stop the likes of Dupont and Monsanto. The burden of proof is on us. They know that we are hard pressed to tease out ONE cause when 80,000 chemicals are channeled into product, food, air and water. The victim is then the only one left to blame. If they had only taken better care of themselves....

Posted by: Patricia | Jan 21, 2013 10:17:31 PM

Not just the food we eat or the couch we sit on, but hazardous chemicals like lead, mercury, etc, enter our body due to continuous exposure to these elements at workplace. People working in businesses like car or radiator repair; home improvement; painting and refinishing; plumbing; construction; electronics; welding and cutting; lead compound manufacturing; lead smelting and refining; manufacturing of rubber products, batteries, and plastics; municipal waste incineration; working in brass or bronze foundries; demolition; and working with scrap metal, etc. can bring home lead in their body from their workplaces. Therefore, it becomes necessary for employers to put visible warnings at workplace reminding workers to exercise caution while handling harmful chemicals and materials. Chemical labels play a key role in implementing hazard communication at worksites. They help save workers from unknowingly coming into harm’s way and accumulating chemicals in their body.

Posted by: kennethmacy | Jan 1, 2013 7:59:55 PM

Hey Carolyn Fine Friedman you are a real life inspiration to all of us. The way you were fight for your rights is just fab...

Posted by: Chemical Exporters | Nov 19, 2012 1:19:43 AM

Alexandra, thanks for your comment. We remember that too! Thanks to Carolyn and others for sharing your experiences with being tested for toxic chemicals. We will continue to work together to get strong and protective laws passed in Congress!

Posted by: Safer Chemicals | Nov 5, 2012 12:39:31 PM

Thanks for sharing. I remember well watching Bill Moyers discuss his own body burden a number of years ago and realizing my body must contain all those toxins, too. It is by raising awareness that we will improve the situation. I think there are more of us out there than politicians realize and soon they will be forced to stand up to the chemical lobby in support of the Safe Chemicals Act.

Posted by: Alexandra | Nov 5, 2012 12:34:34 PM

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