- The Washington Times - Monday, March 26, 2001

A study released last week by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported the presence of trace amounts of 27 chemicals in people's blood and urine. Sounds frightening. But what does it mean?

By itself, very little.

The simple fact that we have certain chemicals in our bodies does not mean we're all in trouble. We all have minute amounts of various substances in our bodies. Only if concentrations are high enough to cause ill effects is there a problem.

Unfortunately, some uninformed activists have misinterpreted this report scaring people unnecessarily. They claim this report is sounding alarm bells and that we should all be afraid.

This is simply not the case. In fact, scientists agree that minute amounts of substances even those dubbed "hazardous" can be absorbed into the body without causing harm. The adage "the dose makes the poison" is a popular expression in science. Taking a couple of aspirin, for example, will make your headache go away. Taking a whole bottle's worth may kill you. Drinking a glass of wine may be good for your heart. Downing bottles would likely put most of us in a coma.

So why all the alarm over the CDC's recent study indicating the mere presence of man-made substances in our bodies, despite the lack of any evidence that the substances are present at levels that pose a health threat?

It is clear that many of us have an irrational fear of anything that smacks of being a "chemical." If it's a chemical, we think it must be bad if it is in our bodies.

In fact, our bodies are made of 100 percent chemicals. DNA is a chemical. Hemoglobin is a chemical. The foods we eat, the air we breathe, the houses we live in, are all made up of 100 percent chemicals. Yet when we hear the word "chemical," we all get nervous. And media reports can make our fears worse. We see only the headlines and get worried. What? The CDC found chemicals in our blood? That has to be bad.

What is needed here is a little perspective. First, these chemicals are being found at minute levels. (Ironically, it's science that has made these scares possible. Years ago we couldn't even detect the levels at which some of these substances are found. Now, with advances in technology, we're able to detect them in parts per billion or lower.)

Second, we can find toxic effects for almost any substance, including water. When a substance is tested on laboratory animals, for example, scientists give them larger and larger amounts of a substance until a health effect is observed. Thus, a chemical might "be found to cause cancer in lab animals," but in reality, humans would never be exposed to anywhere near the levels at which the animals were exposed. In many cases, in fact, the lab animals get exposed to more of a substance in a single day, pound for pound, than humans do in a lifetime.

Third, many of these chemicals have long records of safe use. Take, for example, substances known as phthalates that are used to soften plastics, among other things. These substances have been used for decades without any documented health effect among humans, and they are among the most-studied and best-understood compounds in the world. Many studies confirm they are safe when used properly. Yet they show up in the CDC report and scare us.

Without this kind of perspective, people get worried. Especially if they are parents. As a result, instead of concentrating on real risks to their children Are they wearing bike helmets? Are they safely strapped into their car seats? Are they using sunscreen? Are they smoking? Are they drinking and driving? they concentrate on the hypothetical risks. And their children lose.

We all lose.

Rather than panicking over these hypothetical risks, we all would be better off just taking a deep breath and focusing on real health risks and their prevention.


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