Biomonitoring Fact Sheet

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Scientific research tells us that, wherever we live on the face of the globe, we carry hundreds of man-made (environmental chemicals) in our bodies. We are exposed to environmental chemicals from sources such as food, water, air, and the products we use daily.

Many of the environmental chemicals found in our body's tissues and fluids are closely linked to chronic diseases, such as asthma, cancer, infertility and reproductive disorders, children's developmental disabilities, and heart disease.

Because of deep concern about family and community health, many individuals are stepping forward as volunteers for biomonitoring, a scientific tool which measures the levels of environmental chemicals that have, without our permission or knowledge, entered our bodies. The reservoir of all man-made (environmental) chemicals in our bodies at any given moment is commonly referred to as our "chemical body burden."

Volunteers who participate in biomonitoring projects know that results from biomonitoring projects will help us all understand more about all our chemical body burdens. They want to talk about their personal biomonitoring results and their concerns about the environmental chemicals found in their bodies because they know these stories can be used to identify, measure and prevent further toxic chemical contamination.

More than any other public health tool, results from biomonitoring have helped create regulatory change, refocused scientific inquiry and supported corporate accountability. And importantly, biomonitoring results can help us all make safer and healthier choices for our families, our communities and ourselves.

The following describes the public health tool of biomonitoring and some of its uses.

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What is Biomonitoring?

Biomonitoring is the scientific analysis of human fluids and tissues for the presence of chemicals or their breakdown products, called metabolites. For decades, scientists have tested air, water, soil, and species such as fish to learn more about human exposures to toxic chemicals. Testing human fluids and tissues directly provides a snapshot of human exposure to toxicants. The presence of toxic chemicals in the human body is often referred to as our "chemical body burden."

Government and public health agencies and academic institutions have implemented biomonitoring studies over the past decades for a small number of toxic chemicals, such as lead or DDT. Today, new analytical methods can test for the presence of hundreds of chemicals, and we are learning more about how toxic chemicals and chemicals not yet tested for their effects on human health move through our bodies. Such analysis helps us understand toxic chemicals are linked to incidence and trajectory of disease.

Some chemicals pass through our bodies in a few hours, but others, called Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs) take up residence for decades. Such chemicals include DDT, PBDEs (polybrominate diphenyl ethers) and lindane.

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What Can Biomonitoring Tell Us?

Information from biomonitoring projects can be extremely useful in a number of ways.

Information about the levels of environmental chemicals in our bodies can tell us if regulations intended to protect us from exposures to toxic chemicals are adequate, or can indicate whether regulations are being fully and competently implemented. For example, Sweden's monitoring of breastmilk indicates that regulations banning the production of a powerful carcinogen, dioxin, are effective, since levels of dioxin have been decreasing since the regulations were adopted.

Biomonitoring results can help identify vulnerable populations. For example, biomonitoring studies indicate that per unit of body weight, children often carry a higher level of toxic chemicals in their bodies than do adults, truly unfortunate since growing children are more vulnerable to the effects of toxic chemicals.

Biomonitoring results can help refocus scientific inquiry. For example, biomonitoring makes clear that we are all exposed to hundreds of chemicals, and current science is discovering that combinations of toxic chemicals interacting with each other may cause more harm than does a single toxic chemical. Previously, science focused on the harm from one toxic chemical at a time, but there is a need to study how chemicals may act synergistically. For example, a woman exposed to both aldocarb and atrazine (pesticides) has a much higher risk of becoming ill than if she were exposed to each of these pesticides alone.

Biomonitoring results are also telling us that very small amounts of some chemicals can cause harm. For example, during pregnancy, environmental chemicals the mother encounters may enter her body and be transferred across the placental barrier to the body of her unborn child. Once there, they can alter the complex and unfolding systems of the unborn child by altering how genes normally guide the developing reproductive, immunological and neurological systems. The developing child is simply unable to identify and reject toxic environmental chemicals, which its body mistakenly identifies and accepts as hormones.

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Timing of Exposure Is a Critical Factor

Chemicals that mimic hormones are called endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs) and all of the POPs chemicals are considered to endocrine-disrupting chemicals.) Sometimes the resulting harm from these false hormones does not appear as disease until well after the baby is born and becomes an adult.

What is most startling about the exposure to toxic chemicals is that timing of the exposure itself is critically important.

Exposure to parts per million of a particular toxicant will often cause much greater harm to an unborn child, or infant than to an adult. For example, biomonitoring research with lab animals tells us that exposure to a female lab animal of a small amount of bisphenol A only during a particular window of vulnerability during pregnancy increases the likelihood of her offspring developing breast or testicular cancer or urinary tract abnormalities later in life. This information is not surprising when we remember that environmental chemicals act like hormones and the body of developing baby is exquisitely sensitive to the timing of hormonal activity.

Asthma, infertility, cancer, learning disabilities and other chronic diseases are currently reaching epidemic proportions around the globe. These diseases have an enormous impact on women's lives because women are often the family member most responsible for providing healthcare, for nurturing family members who may remain ill for decades, for arranging for medical assistance and care when medical systems are inadequate or nonexistent, and for finding the financial resources necessary for medicines and treatment.

When women themselves become ill, the burden of disease can become overwhelming, leading to poverty and disempowerment.

And, most important, women are the first environment for the unborn child. Protecting the health of women of childbearing age and preventing exposures to those chemicals that can damage their well-being or threaten the well-being of future children is imperative for the sake of future generations.

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Although many factors play a role in incidence of disease, exposure to toxic chemicals can be pivotal in undermining good health. Biomonitoring results can provide compelling information about exposures and the exposure pathways of chemicals as they move around the globe, providing insight about the linkages between exposures and disease. Such information is vital in creating and supporting regulations more protective of human and ecosystem health.

Biomonitoring data is critically important for women with concerns about the health of their families and their communities. With biomonitoring results in hand, women everywhere can prove we are all in harm's way from toxic chemical exposures. Using results from biomonitoring projects, women are working together to prevent or reduce exposures to toxic chemicals, moving the world towards a healthier future.

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