Last year a collection of green-minded organizations called the Toxic-Free Legacy Coalition asked 10 Washingtonians to submit samples of their hair, urine and blood to test for the presence of toxic chemicals in their bodies. The participants ranged from an Episcopal priest in Seattle to a member of the Spokane tribe. It also included two state senators -- Republican Bill Finkbeiner and Spokane's own Democratic senator, Lisa Brown.
The results of the test, released last week, reveal a stew of toxic chemicals inside the bodies of the test's lab rats and, by extension, a lot of us. We took a look at Sen. Brown's test results to give you a sneak peek at what makes the senator tick, and what could make all of us sick.
2 pesticides present
A little ironic that the liberal, pro-environment senator would come in second (in a tie) for Most Pesticides in the System, with two. The study tested for seven pesticides and chalked up Brown's exposure in part to a diet that she says leans more toward conventionally grown foods than organic ones. One of the chemicals she tested positive for was carbaryl, an insecticide that's sprayed on about half of the state's abundant apple crops and much of its grapes. The chemicals, which can harm the nervous system, are also found in cherries, pears, potatoes and strawberries, among other produce, but much less so in organically grown fruits and vegetables.
1,080 parts per billion
If you're looking for a heavy metal senator, you've got two choices: Brown, who had the fourth-highest level of mercury in her hair samples, or Republican senator Bill Finkbeiner, who nearly doubled Brown with mercury levels that shot above the Environmental Protection Agency's safe levels. It's tough to avoid, though, especially for regular fish-eaters like Brown. Dumped into waters by refineries and coal-burning power plants, mercury is sucked up and stored by tuna, sharks and mackerel, then eaten by humans, leading to deformities in some babies.
25.2 parts per billion
Again, Sen. Brown is right in the middle of the pack when it comes to the perfluorinated compound (PFC) called PFOS. But again, she's not as bad as her colleague across the aisle -- Sen. Bill Finkbeiner topped the list with 49.4 parts per billion of the substance, most commonly found in stain guards and Teflon cookware (DuPont being the most egregious offender here). He should watch out for stain guards: Scotchgard and other furniture treatments, but also oily packaged foods, the plastic encasing of which is designed to repel grease. "Even that Northwest emblem, the Gore-Tex jacket, contains PFC," says the report. "I've never really thought much about the fact that there would be anything dangerous in those kinds of products," says Brown.
46.7 parts per billion
Sen. Brown's levels of the flame retardant PBDE were normal among the 10 test subjects and were well within the national median range. She says she expects to see a bill back on the floor of the Legislature next year that would put Washington at the forefront in terms of eliminating PBDEs. Though two forms of the stuff are no longer in common usage, 50 million pounds of one form, called "deca," go into products -- furniture, textiles and especially the plastic housings for televisions and computer monitors -- each year. Reduce your exposure with PBDE-free furniture (from Ikea, for instance), electronics (Dell, HP, Canon, etc.) and by avoiding farmed fish, among other things.
1.8 parts per billion & -- 1.2 parts per billion
Called "the chemicals that came to stay" in the report, DDT -- made famous by Rachel Carson's 1964 environmental expos & eacute;, Silent Spring -- and PCBs have been shown to be incredibly persistent, building up in the ecosystem and wreaking havoc on nervous systems, rather than simply biodegrading. Though both were banned or phased out in the 1970s, they've stuck around long enough to register in most of the 10 test subjects. The levels for Brown, who grew up in southern Illinois farm country back when the chemicals were still in widespread use, are around the national average. Avoid the chemicals by avoiding lean meat and being picky about fish -- especially sport-caught fish and shellfish.
Phthalates -- 95.1 parts per billion
The report tested for three varieties of phthalates (pronounced "THAL-ates"), chemical compounds used commonly in plastics (especially PVC) that don't build up in the body (like DDT) but are present in our everyday lives -- in shower curtains, vinyl flooring, plastic toys. They're also found (unlisted) in lotions and shampoos and have been linked to liver and kidney damage, reduced lung capacity and poor male reproductive health.
Sen. Brown's scores were right in the middle among the test subjects, though she doesn't have the vinyl windows or flooring that can carry the chemicals. Still, phthalates are everywhere. Look at the recycling symbol on various plastics. If it says #3, it contains PVC. Look at the ingredient list on your shampoo. Does it say, mysteriously, "fragrance"? Probably phthalates.
"I suppose I wasn't really surprised [at the test results]," says Brown. "There was a part of me that was hoping I would test well. Everybody likes to do good on tests." The Senate majority leader, who says she tries to make wise decisions as a consumer but who also has one of the busiest schedules in Washington -- full of travel, take-out and suspect hotel rooms -- says that much of her exposure to harmful chemicals is unavoidable. The fact that all 10 subjects tested positive for certain toxins, she says, "tells me we've got a bigger issue here than each person's individual choices." (For more info, visit www.pollutioninpeople.org)