Biomonitoring and the Public Health Laboratory: Everything You Want to Know

Oct 23 2014 :: Published in Environmental Health

Biomonitoring and the Public Health Laboratory: Everything You Want to Know | www.aphlblog.org

Simply stated, biomonitoring allows public health practitioners to understand whether environmental contaminants are being absorbed into people’s bodies. Given improvements in technology; the capabilities and expertise that now exist in public health laboratories; and the increasing public demand for more information about chemical exposures, biomonitoring is poised to become an integral component of public health practice.

APHL proudly recognizes all of the great work public health laboratories are doing to advance the practice of biomonitoring. We have made it a priority to share these biomonitoring achievements through a variety of channels.

Just in case you missed these great resources and stories, they are here:

Free Webinars

Blog posts and Lab Matters Articles

Fact Sheets

Other resources

Tell us what you think: EH@aphl.org.

 

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Arsenic in the water: Are filters and bottled water enough protection?

Aug 05 2014 :: Published in Environmental Health

By Melissa Murray Jordan, senior environmental epidemiologist, Bureau of Epidemiology, Division of Disease Control and Health Protection, Florida Department of Health

Arsenic in the water: Are filters and bottled water enough protection? | www.aphlblog.org

Private wells in many central Florida counties have been found to contain levels of arsenic above the federal maximum containment level (MCL) of 10 μg/L (micrograms per liter). Knowing it is present is important to the public’s health; but how serious is this? Even exposure to low amounts of arsenic can potentially lead to an abnormal heart rhythm, damage to blood vessels, and a tingling sensation in hands and feet. Inorganic arsenic, the type in this water, is a carcinogen when consumed over many years. High levels of exposure to arsenic may lead to death. To address this known contamination, the Florida Safe Water Restoration Program provided filters or bottled water to households with arsenic levels in private wells between 10 μg/L and 50 μg/L. In partnership with the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, the Florida Department of Health (FDOH) decided to test the effectiveness of this program as well as explore any further impact of the contaminated water on residents living in areas of concern.

The study targeted Hernando County where nearly 400 of the 1,200 wells tested had elevated arsenic levels. This time, scientists wanted to understand if residents who weren’t drinking unfiltered well water (people who were drinking bottled water or using a filter in their homes) were still ingesting unsafe levels of arsenic through other unfiltered tap water in the home. It is widely known that arsenic exposure often occurs from drinking water, but what about exposure to water in other ways? What about brushing your teeth with unfiltered water? Or when cooking with unfiltered water?

A critical initial step of this project was forming a workgroup with representatives from many disciplines to inform various steps of the study:

  • Environmental specialists to provide background information on areas of known arsenic contamination in the state and details on the private well testing database;
  • Epidemiologists to provide guidance on the study design and sample size;
  • Laboratorians for developing the protocol for collecting, shipping and testing the water and urine samples;
  • Toxicologists to interpret the risk of arsenic exposure;
  • And communications experts to develop press releases, frequently asked questions and coordinate media.

Funding from CDC’s Environmental Public Health Tracking program allowed the state to engage these experts and ensured a high-quality study.

From April through July of 2013, 360 individuals from 166 households participated in the study. Nearly 50% of the participants were from control households: households with well water arsenic levels below 8 μg/L (below MCL). The other half were classified as case households: households with arsenic levels exceeding 10 μg/L (at or above the MCL). Participants provided urine and water samples, and completed a questionnaire on water consumption, dietary history and other possible sources of arsenic exposures. Water and urine samples were sent to the public health laboratory in Jacksonville, Florida for analysis of total arsenic.

The majority of case households (59.8%) reported bottled water as their most common source of drinking water, and 47.5% reported using bottled water for cooking. However, the majority of case households reported using unfiltered well water to brush their teeth (88.7%).

In many biomonitoring studies, only adults participate. This study also included children. Simply because of their size, a small amount of a chemical can have a larger impact in a child than the same amount in an adult. Scientists felt it was valuable to look at a range of people without omitting the smallest members of the community. Additionally, children tend to have different behaviors from the adults in their homes. For example, they may take baths rather than showers – and kids may be more likely to ingest that bath water. Fortunately, no children in this study were found to have elevated levels of inorganic arsenic.

Results: Residents using filtered or bottled water for drinking were not at an increased risk for arsenic exposure through other unfiltered household water sources.

The distribution of filters and bottled water was helping to prevent residents from exposure to arsenic. While testing for contaminants in the wells was an important first step to understanding the problem, biomonitoring provided a more complete picture of the full impact on a population. This was obviously good news to the residents and researchers alike.

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Safe Drinking Water Act has Been Protecting You for 40 Years

Jun 25 2014 :: Published in Environmental Health

By Michael Heintz, MS, JD, senior specialist, environmental laboratoriesAPHL

Safe Drinking Water Act has Been Protecting You for 40 Years | www.aphlblog.org

Raise a glass—of tap water, that is. December 16, 2014 marks the 40 years since the enactment of the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA). Although many states had drinking water standards before SDWA, there was no national standard for public drinking water protections.

The 1970s saw a significant wave of environmental statutes enacted by the US government. President Gerald Ford signed SDWA into law on December 16, 1974. In addition to SDWA, that decade also saw the enactment of the Clean Air Act (1970) and the Clean Water Act (1972), as well as the formation of the US Environmental Protection Agency (1970) and the first Earth Day (1970).

But this isn’t a history or civics lesson (well, maybe a little). The question then is: What does the Safe Drinking Water Act do? Glad you asked!

The Safe Drinking Water Act sets standards for the safety of drinking water including disinfection, filtration, and setting maximum contaminant levels. Public water supplies must meet these minimum, health-based standards when supplying drinking water to 25 or more people. In addition to setting standards for the distributed water, SDWA reaches secondary parts of the drinking water system. For instance, SDWA sets the amount of lead that can be in plumbing products that come in contact with drinking water, and regulates potable water on airline flights. For drinking water that comes from groundwater sources, SDWA requires protections for wellhead zones—those areas where groundwater is extracted for municipal drinking water. And yes, SDWA protects areas that use surface water as drinking water sources (like rivers, lakes, and reservoirs). There are even whistleblower safeguards for people who report violations of the standards. In total, SDWA is responsible for substantial improvements to public health through virus and chemical removal, source protection, and monitoring and other efforts.

It is also important to note, though, that SDWA does not regulate bottled water or private wells (those serving fewer than 25 people). While there are recommendations for private wells, non-public sources of drinking water are largely unregulated.

In order to ensure public systems are meeting the SDWA requirements, the law requires certified laboratory testing for drinking water—overseen by a Principal State Laboratory (usually the state public health or environmental laboratory; to learn more, see APHL’s position statement). Those results must be made available to the public in the form of Consumer Confidence Reports (CCRs). While increasingly available electronically, these CCRs are typically sent to water customers annually and explain the contaminant levels in individual water systems.

I encourage you to learn more about SDWA and some of the details of the law. SDWA ensures that the water at your kitchen faucet is safe for you, your family and your neighbors. So while I normally wouldn’t toast with water, I’ll make an exception this time and raise my glass to say happy anniversary to the Safe Drinking Water Act!

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What We’re Reading: Lab Week Edition

Apr 24 2014 :: Published in Environmental Health, What We're Reading

What We're Reading: Lab Week Edition | www.aphlblog.org

 

Although we like to think every week is a time to show our appreciation for laboratorians everywhere, this week has been deemed Medical Laboratory Professionals Week — or Lab Week, as it’s come to be known.  While laboratories have taken the week to celebrate their staff in a variety of ways, APHL has celebrated their work on our blog and social networks.  This year we chose to focus on the work of environmental laboratorians.  Who are they?  What exactly do they do?  And what’s APHL’s next big move in environmental health?

These laboratorians shared their journeys into environmental laboratory science:

- Scientist? Actress? Or President?  By Laurie Peterson-Wright, Chemistry Program Manager, Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment
An Outdoor Enthusiast Finds a Career in Environmental Health By Henry Leibovitz, Ph.D., Chief, Environmental Sciences, RI State Health Laboratories
Discovering the Link Between Environmental Health and Public Health By Kathryn Wangsness, Chief, Office of Laboratory Services, Arizona State Public Health Laboratory

Introducing APHL’s Meeting Community Health Needs through Environmental Laboratories project:

My Earth Day — My Community – An introduction to this new grassroots project
What are Environmental Justice Communities and how can Laboratory Testing Protect the Most Vulnerable? – A guest post by our partner, Dr. Jalonne L. White-Newsome, Federal Policy Analyst, WE ACT for Environmental Justice
- More on the Meeting Community Health Needs through Environmental Laboratories project

 

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Discovering the Link Between Environmental Health and Public Health

April 20-26 is Laboratory Professionals Week! This year APHL is focusing on environmental health and the laboratorians who work to detect the presence of contaminants in both people and in the environment.  This post is part of a series.

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By Kathryn Wangsness, Chief, Office of Laboratory Services, Arizona State Public Health Laboratory

Ever since I was a little girl, I have always wanted to do something in the field of science that would help others.  Originally I thought of becoming a doctor or a nurse, but determined early on that was not for me.  I was then interested in perhaps teaching science at the high school level.  However, in high school I determined that I would much rather be doing testing that would assist others on a population scale.

Discovering the Link Between Environmental Health and Public Health | www.aphlblog.org

While working on my degree in Chemistry, I got a job with an insect ecologist and, later, a plant ecologist. I learned how we interact with our environment and how impacts on the environment affected the public.  It wasn’t until I graduated and was fortunate enough to land a job with the Arizona State Public Health Laboratory Chemistry section that I started seeing the connection to public health.

Early on in my career I started noticing that when there was an event that would have a potential environmental health impact, we would receive samples to provide needed information.  Performing the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) methods on a routine basis and in emergency situations taught me the importance of the work we do.  As I progressed through my career at the public health laboratory, I became an EPA Certification Officer for the state of Arizona and with the Arizona State Public Health Laboratory, which allowed me to expand my horizons and see how the environmental laboratory community was contributing to the safety and health of Arizonans.  I learned that the treatment of drinking water was one of the greatest revolutions in public health and that ensuring we continue to have a functioning system was critical to preventing reoccurrence of diseases like cholera.  During this time, I realized that I wanted to stay in public health and went on to earn a Master of Health Administration in 2007.

I also began to explore biomonitoring and the lab’s past, present and future involvement.  Biomonitoring allows us to explore the connections between the environment and the population to help promote and protect the public.  In my current role as Office Chief of Laboratory Services and Quality Assurance Manager, as well as in my previous role, I have the opportunity to provide training to our partners on the importance of testing and to provide presentations to educate the community on the work that we do.

I take pride in the work that I do to promote and educate individuals on what it means to be involved in public health laboratory work and that environmental health is a critical component of that work.  I enjoy coming to work at such a rewarding place every day.

 

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An Outdoor Enthusiast Finds a Career in Environmental Health

Apr 23 2014 :: Published in Environmental Health

April 20-26 is Laboratory Professionals Week! This year APHL is focusing on environmental health and the laboratorians who work to detect the presence of contaminants in both people and in the environment.  This post is part of a series.

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By Henry Leibovitz, Ph.D., Chief, Environmental Sciences, RI State Health Laboratories

Growing up along the south shore of Long Island’s eastern end, my interests covered everything aquatic.  My every waking hour was spent on the water fishing, boating, clam digging, and exploring. My every dream was driven by the excitement of the sea. It was an exceptional lifestyle for an adolescent who cared more about adventure than academics. Nonetheless, my future was destined to involve higher education and research by the vision of my father who was a veterinarian, a research scientist and veterinary college professor.

An Outdoor Enthusiast Finds a Career in Environmental Health | www.aphlblog.org

While earning my BS in Biology, a close priority became serving as president of the outing club, an adventure wilderness group of students spending weekends in the Adirondack Mountains. Opportunity also came to me in campus residence life as I worked as a resident advisor and then assistant dormitory director. The training and experiences included interpersonal communication, conflict resolution, supervision and management as well as life lessons that would play a major role later in my laboratory career. Upon graduation, my passion had become feeding the world through aquaculture.

After marrying my college sweetheart I enrolled in an MS degree program of Fisheries and Allied Aquaculture at Auburn University. Waking up before dawn to measure dissolved oxygen levels in the catfish ponds and constantly worrying about the threat of O2 depletion, and losing thousands of pounds of fish was not going to be my way of life. The laboratory environment became much more interesting. My major professor introduced me to the nutritional biochemistry of fish diets and feeds. Replacing fish meal with soybean meal in catfish diets was the subject of my research and thesis. “We are what we eat!” With fish I learned that feed analysis is critical to understanding how diet affected the growth, health and production of farmed fish. I earned my MS realizing that laboratory scientists have a significant role in feeding the world just as the farmers do.

I landed a research associate position on a project at Louisiana State University funded by a NIH grant to develop laboratory grade bullfrogs (Rana catesbiana) in place of the wild caught overly-stressed specimens for neurophysiologic research. My role was to improve the diets for larval stages of tadpoles!  In the laboratory we bred and raised several bullfrog line generations. During metamorphosis however tadpoles frequently developed skeletal deformities including scoliosis. My research focused on dietary and environmental factors that were causally suspected. While the research was very interesting, I became convinced that it would be more rewarding to lead the research activities and that earning a Ph.D. was necessary to continue my career.

During my Ph.D. program at the University of Rhode Island I worked as a research associate for the Department of Food Science and Nutrition. My duties as instrumentation specialist involved me in a variety of the department’s research activities. While pursuing my doctoral dissertation developing microencapsulated diets for larval marine fish, I learned the importance of elucidating environmental components such as pesticides, PCBs and metals in natural (plankton and brine shrimp) and formulated diets (various fish meals, fish oils, grains and other ingredients) for growth and survival during fragile larval stages.

Learning to apply the tools of analytical chemistry to the analysis of environmental components in feed and living organisms, I forged my career path into environmental laboratory analysis.  After earning a Ph.D., I worked for an environmental analysis laboratory starting as supervisor and eventually as laboratory director before the company moved to South America. We provided laboratory services to national clients including the US Department of Defense, EPA and many environmental engineering contractors. We analyzed sample matrices included air, water, soil, biota and food. Professionally I was so rewarded by the teaching, research and managerial aspects of my job that I didn’t expect to find in the commercial sector. Teaching newly hired graduates, improving methodology and instrument performance, and sharing a vision of the critical paths to achieving objectives kept me interested in the work. Client centric laboratory services were important to me.

In 2004 I was hired by the RI State Health Laboratories (SHL) as Quality Assurance Officer in the Environmental Laboratory Sciences section. In 2007 I became Chief Environmental Laboratory Scientist of the section that includes the chemical and microbiological analysis of drinking water, food, air, dairy, shell fish, recreational water and ambient river samples for the health and environmental program partners we serve. I point to the dedication of staff, peers and colleagues for the successful SHL services provided to our state health and environmental program and industrial partners.

As a public servant I have come to understand that the existence of our laboratories depends on the successful outcomes of our partners in public health and environmental protection.

Outside of work I enjoy spending time with my family and I still pursue the adventure of the great outdoors all seasons of the year.

 

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My Earth Day — My Community

Apr 22 2014 :: Published in Environmental Health

April 20-26 is Laboratory Professionals Week! This year APHL is focusing on environmental health and the laboratorians who work to detect the presence of contaminants in both people and in the environment.  This post is part of a series.

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By Surili Sutaria Patel, Senior Specialist, Environmental HealthAPHL 

My Earth Day -- My Community | www.aphlblog.org
Today is Earth Day!  People all over the world plant trees, clean up their communities, contact their elected officials to take action and more. By protecting the environment, we are protecting our health from harmful pollution and hazardous contaminants found in our environments.

Yet not all environments are created equally. Some communities throughout the US are faced with environmental health issues because of where they are or their residents’ socio-economic status. Such communities are often disproportionately exposed to harmful pollutants. Achieving environmental justice – or the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people (regardless of race, color, national origin, or income) with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations and policies – is key to truly protecting the health and environments of all.

In an effort to better link concerned communities with their public health laboratory to answer questions about environmental contaminants, APHL is proud to launch the Meeting Community Needs through Environmental Laboratories web-based tool. Created for advocacy and consumer groups to better understand the role of an environmental public health laboratory, this resource aims to address how the public health system can better utilize the rich capabilities of laboratories to meet environmental health needs. The site contains the APHL report on Meeting Community Health Needs through Environmental Health Labs, presentations from a forum held in 2012, a YouTube video, next steps and more. The site also hosts a discussion board where anyone can post questions about environmental health concerns.

Read a recent blog post by our partner, Dr. Jalonne L. White-Newsome at WE ACT for Environmental Justice, entitled, “What are Environmental Justice Communities and how can Laboratory Testing Protect the Most Vulnerable?

Join the discussion today and tell us about your community environmental health concerns!

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What are Environmental Justice Communities and how can Laboratory Testing Protect the Most Vulnerable?

Apr 22 2014 :: Published in Environmental Health

April 20-26 is Laboratory Professionals Week! This year APHL is focusing on environmental health and the laboratorians who work to detect the presence of contaminants in both people and in the environment.  This post is part of a series.

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By Dr. Jalonne L. White-Newsome, Federal Policy Analyst, WE ACT for Environmental Justice

Choices. One of the most difficult choices my 4-year old had to make before starting school was which bookbag she wanted. It was a close call between the shiny Dora bookbag with the pink and purple zippers or one of her favorite Disney princesses. As a mom, however, there are slightly more difficult choices I have to make.

What are Environmental Justice Communities and how can Laboratory Testing Protect the Most Vulnerable? | www.aphlblog.org

My choices are based on keeping my children safe, happy and healthy. So when I found out that many of the products I typically purchased for my daughter – like the Dora bookbag – were made from chemicals like phthalates and bisphenol-A (BPA), I grew concerned. The chemicals found in these products commonly sold in variety stores, or price-point retailers that sell inexpensive items with a single price for all or most of the items in the store, are linked to adverse reproductive and neurodevelopment health outcomes, as well as higher predisposition to diabetes and asthma. While avoiding EVERY hazardous product is unrealistic, having the choice – as well as the resources and knowledge to make informed choices – is key. But not everyone has that choice or access to this knowledge.

Environmental justice (EJ) communities are usually described as communities of color and/or low income communities that are disproportionately burdened with environmental pollution. Members of EJ communities are often the same people exposed to potentially unhealthy products. Residents’ choices are limited to products sold at these retail establishments, such as local variety store or bodegas, due to financial and transportation barriers. At the same time, members of EJ communities are often unaware of the health consequences of their product choices.

As a Federal Policy Analyst for WE ACT for Environmental Justice, I have the opportunity to work on multiple environmental issues that disproportionately impact communities of color and/or low income communities. While the specific issue of toxic exposures from consumer goods has typically been omitted from the traditional definition of EJ, it is now more important than ever that we make these connections, especially in a world where cumulative impacts and risks are becoming an integral part of analyzing risk.

So the question becomes: are communities of color, and/or low income communities more exposed to hazardous consumer goods than communities with a different socio-demographic profile? To begin answering this question, WE ACT’s environmental health team engaged in a community-academic partnership to quantify the proliferation of toxic chemicals in northern Manhattan, NY. WE ACT created a database of businesses that sell products that typically contain hazardous ingredients – such as skin-lightening cream and hair relaxers – that target EJ communities.

This is not a concern limited to the northern Manhattan communities, but communities across the US. Many national coalitions are forming across the country to raise awareness about consumer products that contain potentially-toxic chemicals. Additional concerns surround chemicals used in certain industries – like hair and nail salons – where minorities are exposed to toxic fumes daily without proper ventilation. Although we can speculate that some communities are disproportionately exposed to harmful chemicals, the ability to quantify the exposures to research on the potential health impacts remains critical.

While efforts by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and other non-governmental organizations aim to protect EJ communities from environmental hazards, limited research compares the health impacts of consumer goods and the exposure profile of communities that face EJ issues to other communities.  It is very important that researchers answer some of these concerns with hard data. By testing common products for potentially-toxic chemicals, especially products sold in variety stores, we can inform community members and advocate for better choices.

The Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), enacted in 1976, is one of the laws that serve as the primary source of protection for human health related to consumer products. Revisions to TSCA are currently underway in Congress, with many members of the EJ community and national coalitions fighting to ensure that the revisions reflect their concerns and codify the solutions needed to address the particular sensitivity of EJ communities such as cumulative risk. Comprehensive chemical policies at the federal level combined with consumer products testing can change the landscape of the market. APHL aims to promote good laboratory practice and data quality for consumer product testing. To join APHL in a discussion on environmental justice and consumer product testing, please visit the Meeting Community Environmental Health Needs webpage. This site aims to help you navigate the system, while ultimately improving the governmental environmental health system, while ultimately improving that very same system for other concerned communities.

To learn more about Achieving Environmental Justice through public health laboratory practice, visit the Fall 2012 issue of APHL’s Lab Matters magazine.

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Scientist? Actress? Or President?

April 20-26 is Laboratory Professionals Week! This year APHL is focusing on environmental health and the laboratorians who work to detect the presence of contaminants in both people and in the environment.  This post is part of a series.

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By Laurie Peterson-Wright, Chemistry Program Manager, Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment

Who would have known that the 1973 fifth grade class of Beadle Elementary in Yankton, South Dakota could predict the future?  As a classroom exercise, we all had to vote on what we would each be when we grew up.  I received 10 votes to become an actress, 10 votes to become a scientist and even one vote to be the first woman president!

Scientist? Actress? Or President? | www.aphlblog.org

My parents were adamant that I finish every project, class, book, craft or book I started.  This instilled within me a commitment to never quit and a sense of wonderment at where the next bit of knowledge and hard work would take me. My passion for any type of science began at a young age.  I would stay glued to my microscope or my telescope at night.  I wanted to learn everything about how humans and the universe operated.  I had so many educational ambitions – teaching, mathematician, certified public accountant, physicist, medical doctor, astronaut (and let us not forget Hollywood Star) – but after many years in school, I reeled my focus in to chemistry, mathematics and business administration.

My first position was in cancer research, but I was shortly introduced to environmental chemistry and project management.   I was intrigued by how chemical and radiological pollutants interacted with the environment and what we could do to mitigate exposure, especially for sensitive populations.  I spent 15 years in the environmental remediation/waste management field and then accepted a position with the State of Colorado Chemistry Program in 2001.  Immediately I embraced public health and how these same contaminants in the environment could be so easily transported.  I was fascinated by how they interacted with the human body including sensitive human and animal endocrine systems.

This world is an amazing place! By continuing to focus on my passion in public health, I will only increase my knowledge of how all sensitive systems are interconnected.  Live gently, and also boldly, my fellow scientists.

Oh, and by the way….I still act…and PS don’t tell my parents I never finished Moby Dick.

 

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Measuring Household Dust for Potentially Dangerous Chemicals

Apr 08 2014 :: Published in Environmental Health

This blog post is part of a biomonitoring series.

Can analyzing our household or workplace dust help scientists predict the levels of potentially dangerous chemicals inside our bodies?

In a world where furniture, carpets, curtains and electronics are treated with potent flame-retardant chemicals, we are exposed continuously to novel chemical substances upon which little research has been conducted. The use of flame retardants has become necessary due to changing types of materials used in our household goods.

Measuring Household Dust for Potentially Dangerous Chemicals | www.aphlblog.org

“Think of your living room and all the synthetic materials used in the furnishings and curtains,” said Myrto Petreas, PhD, MPH, from the California Department of Toxic Substances Control. “Now compare that to what was in your grandmother’s living room. Her furniture was probably made with horsehair and wool, and was inherently not prone to fire. With synthetic fabric, there is more fire danger.”

The concern about flame retardants, she said, is that very little is known about these chemicals or what levels, if any, are safe for humans.

Around the time polychlorinated biphenyls, more commonly known as PCBs, were banned in 1979 due to human carcinogenic effects, chemists began creating new flame-retardant chemicals. Fifteen years ago, Petreas and her staff encountered one of the newer ones for the first time. “We were measuring chemicals in a study of breast cancer and looking at the body fat, levels of PCBs, etc. I went to a meeting in Sweden in 1998, where a researcher presented on these new chemicals, PBDEs (polybrominated diphenyl ethers), found in high levels in human breast milk. Back at the lab, I wondered, ‘Can we see it here?’ The levels were so high, I thought it was a mistake.”

Pausing, Petreas added, “The levels are 30 times higher in California now than they were in Sweden then.”

While researchers do not know for sure that the brominated flame retardants, especially the PBDEs, are carcinogens, they are structurally similar to the banned PCBs. They also assimilate into our fat. PCBs, although banned 35 years ago, are still found commonly in people, said Petreas, “because they are in the food web now.” Banning a chemical cannot eradicate it from the population, she explained, but “PBDEs are placed on purpose in our products. We are exposed through dust more than diet. After they are banned, 20 years from now, those PBDEs will be in the food web too, in birds and cows. They stay a long time in the body.”

PBDEs are endocrine disruptors that compete with the thyroid’s hormones, potentially affecting development and cognitive abilities. “In animals,” said Petreas, “they are carcinogens; in humans, we can now look and see but do not have the answers yet.”

The question about whether chemical levels found in dust can help predict the levels in our bodies is an interesting one to biomonitoring scientists who study chemical levels in the human body. “What you see in the dust takes many steps to reach your body,” said Petreas. Just because the chemical is in the air or dust does not mean that your body will absorb it. Also, it is possible that chemicals may be dangerous in combinations rather than alone. Genetics also likely influence susceptibility. Biomonitoring is a sufficiently new science that many questions remain unanswered.

However, it is feasible that scientists could get a good idea of exposure merely by studying the contents of a household’s vacuum cleaner.

Petreas’ lab has worked on two dust studies. One, the California Childhood Leukemia Study, with UC Berkeley, is looking for correlations between childhood leukemia and chemical exposures found in the home. The study is not complete but after looking at the dust samples, Petreas said, “we have seen differences among homes and geography. There is a socio-economic factor: there are higher levels of PBDEs in house dust among lower income households and people of color.”

They also found a high correlation in results from dust tests repeated 3-8 years apart on the same home, showing that the chemical levels were not declining much over time.

The second study, the Firehouse Dust Study that compared levels of pollutants in the blood of firefighters and in the dust of the firehouses, was a side-study of the Firefighters’ Occupational Exposures (FOX) study, conducted by Biomonitoring California with UC Irvine.

“In this pilot study, we tested the blood and urine of 99 men and 2 women,” said Petreas. “We had questionnaires about their work: do they work with forest fires or structural fires? What kind of protective gear do they have and is it used? Later, we wanted to combine the environmental measure with this earlier biological measure. We took samples of dust from the station’s vacuum cleaners. This gives an overall integrated measurement to what the firefighters have been exposed to over time in the firehouse.”

They discovered, perhaps unsurprisingly, that firefighters did have much higher levels of flame retardants in their blood than an average person. Researchers are still trying to identify the main sources of exposure.

Actually, PBDE levels in Californians are higher than in most Americans, largely because of the state’s unique flammability requirements. Petreas pointed out that because the California market is so large, many corporations are designing products to meet the state’s stringent flammability standards and then selling them across North America. As a result, PBDE levels in North Americans are much higher than in Europeans or Asians.

“[Researchers] are always a few levels behind the marketplace,” said Petreas. “We measure the PBDEs now, but already there are different chemicals being used and we don’t know what they are. We can see these chemicals in our samples, but we haven’t studied them yet.”

An important factor in launching these studies has been the creation of Biomonitoring California, a legislatively mandated program that aims to determine baseline levels of environmental contaminants in Californians, study chemical trends over time, and advise regulatory programs. Biomonitoring California is a collaborative effort between the California Department of Public Health, the Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment, and the Department of Toxic Substances Control.

“What else is out there that we don’t know about and haven’t looked for?” Petreas asked, echoing a concern that led to the creation of Biomonitoring California.

To reduce exposure to potentially dangerous chemicals, whether from dust or other sources, Petreas said, “Wash your hands before you eat. Just like your mother told you. Never eat at your computer. Leave your shoes outside. These things help with most public health concerns, whether avian flu or chemicals.”

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Without biomonitoring, public health practitioners face challenges in understanding whether environmental contaminants are actually being absorbed into people’s bodies. Given improvements in technology, the capabilities and expertise that exist in public health laboratories, and the increasing demand from the public for more information about chemical exposures, biomonitoring is poised to become an integral component of public health practice.

To learn more about biomonitoring, check out some of APHL’s Biomonitoring Resources:

Stay tuned for our soon-to-be-unveiled Meeting Community Needs page and of course, let us know if you have any feedback or suggestions.  

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