The term ‘body burden’ refers to the total amount of chemicals that are present in the human body at a given point in time
21st century living is showing some interesting developments – have we been too creative and are we about to pay the price for being so?! Have our temporary applications taken permanent abode within us, thus changing who we are? Time will tell, but the results at present indicate we should take note and take real due care. The answer lies not in purging ourselves with the unwanted but more so with purging our heads from the imbalanced smartness that we appear to demonstrate.
We walk into a supermarket featuring shelves with many products which contain a multitude of chemicals to realise some specific property. Sometimes we gladly embraced bottles filled with chemicals because the aroma that the spray gives us is quite pleasing and titillates our senses and perhaps those of those who are around as well.
Instead of getting rid of a negative smell, we tend to mask the negative with a product purchased to give an acceptable perception. With some analysis we may find that we actually spend more on these products than on our food.
Chemical ‘body burden’
While the chemicals that we have introduced, synthesised and produced, in large numbers, have resulted in some extensions to our average lifespan, have yielded a higher quality of life, there are indications that some of these developments may actually turn out to be not too wholesome after all.
Today we speak of having introduced more than one million chemicals and most are finding their way into commercial operations, services and products. Every day many are working in a number of labor
atories finding more ways to introduce newer chemicals and all look towards coming across a wonder chemical. Check the price of a high-end perfume and one may understand the power of a chemical ingredient in turning both heads and commerce around.
Today I am more than I am because I appear to harbour about 700 foreign chemicals and related residues which are termed as our chemical body burden. It does not matter where I come from and where I live, because this burden appears to be ubiquitous. This value appears to be true even for those from remote corners far away from active human centres.
The term ‘body burden’ refers to the total amount of chemicals that are present in the human body at a given point in time. Sometimes it is also useful to consider the body burden of a specific, single chemical, like, for example, lead, mercury, PCB or dioxin. These chemicals that we use tend to leave a more lasting imprint. They also move from one place to another and demonstrate preferences in settling down in some preferred locations. Our bodily fat appears to be one such place.
Such migrations and the ability to accumulate have meant today a newborn gets exposed to some of our modern miracles even before they have a chance to enter to this world – to the developing foetus through the placenta. Subsequently they may also find that breast milk too is not the most preferred and important as it is shown to be. The unique importance of breast milk has not changed; it is the contaminants that are being increasingly shown to be present in mother’s milk that concerns the researchers.
Two types of manufacturers
Due to vigilant groups, issues have surfaced and the ability to take action has emerged. However, the current manufacturing scenarios have two types of manufacturers. Those engaged in responsible manufacture, once potential issues come to light, take proactive steps in implementing findings and staying clear of ‘bad’ ingredients. They would not mind stopping production or removing ingredients even if there is no immediate substitute being available to realise the primary property.
Then there are manufacturers who only consider the specific property and would continue to use the chemicals in spite of new evidence. With the same product manufactured in two different locations, the ‘rogue’ production actually puts the user in danger.
Another serious aspect to note is that these substandard products do appear with a lower price tag, which makes purchasing a much more complex issue. This we experience daily by saying products from one country are cheaper than from another and we witness many a purchasing decision going the way of the cheaper option in the absence of strict quality criteria.
When chemicals are ingredients of a complex product, one may have to go into extreme depth with detailed criteria if one wants to ensure consumer protection.
What is responsible behaviour? It is interesting to note how one company through the normal monitoring mechanism but with positive corporate commitment identified and took steps with respect to a particular group of chemicals even though at the time they were an excellent revenue generator.
The story as reported in the US press and by Gregory Unruh in Earth Inc. is as follows: It was in 1997 that 3M made a surprising discovery during a routine check of factory workers’ blood. As expected, the blood of all the 3M employees had small quantities of the chemical perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS) – a key input used in the production of 3M’s renowned stain-resistant spray Scotchgard.
The problem was with the control samples taken from nonemployees. Since the people in the control group had never been in the plant or exposed to the production process, their blood should have been ‘clean’. It wasn’t. Detectable concentrations of PFOS turned up in all of them.
Hoping there was some mistake, 3M’s Medical Director got samples from 600 Red Cross donors and tested them. There was PFOS in all of these samples too. He then obtained samples from Europe, comfortably far away from the 3M facility. They all tested positive. It seemed that everyone in the world was contaminated with 3M’s product. And not just people. Polar bears in the Arctic, birds in Japan – just about everywhere anyone looked they found 3M’s PFOS.
Credit should indeed go to those who took great pains and efforts to pursue an odd finding to the identification of a global problem of persistence of synthetic chemicals. To its credit, 3M voluntarily shut down its PFOS plant, a business that had been profitable for over 50 years. 3M demonstrated thus the answer to my question.
Consequences and corrective action
We are yet not fully aware of the consequences of the chemical body burden and the concentration at which point they would actually cause an adverse effect. However, we cannot wait to determine the value before taking action either. That is why chemicals such as PFOSs which raised much interest and subsequently concern at 3M are subjected to international protocols – Stockholm Convention – today.
At present a study is underway in Sri Lanka in preparing a national inventory of these chemicals. We have observed many deficiencies in our system in the process which demand corrective action.
21st century living thus is quite complex. While we go on in search of quality, comforts and convenience and superior properties, we have to understand the short, medium and long term risks that may be emerging. This calls for parallel work from both the manufacturers and regulators.
The responsibility on the manufacturer is not to use an ingredient when the body of knowledge indicates warning signals and not to act with bias towards superior properties, claiming incompleteness of knowledge. Chemicals once greeted with Nobel Prizes such as DDT are today similarly subjected to international protocols.
Internal monitoring capability
Today we say when we walk about we may be giving shelter to around 700 foreign chemicals within our body. We inhale, swallow them or absorb them through our skin. These three routes are prone to abuse and we at times have very little control too. This knowledge has come through detailed experimentation of some dedicated researchers and through techniques developed by another set of dedicated researchers.
Yet within our national boundaries our abilities in testing our own unique body burden is difficult due to the limited availability of testing facilities. This implies too our inabilities in differentiating quality products vs ‘rogue’ products that may be entering our markets based on ‘cost effective’ considerations which usually dominates the decision making process.
There is a need to develop an internal monitoring capability along with relevant human resource developments. Otherwise we observe that for even simple monitoring we have to reach out to external bodies at great expenses.
A couple of analysis points does not tell the whole story. It is not possible to seek greater quality of life without an investment in instruments and implementation of systems such as Global Harmonised Code that enable sustenance of our progress with due care. Responsible use of chemicals is the way forward if we are not to become walking chemical repositories.
[The writer is Professor of Chemical and Process Engineering at the University of Moratuwa, Sri Lanka. With an initial BSc Chemical engineering Honours degree from Moratuwa, he proceeded to the University of Cambridge for his PhD. He is the Project Director of COSTI (Coordinating Secretariat for Science, Technology and Innovation), which is a newly established State entity with the mandate of coordinating and monitoring scientific affairs. He can be reached via email on firstname.lastname@example.org.]