Chemicals in our bodies: The next frontier

Biomonitoring data will affect future legislation, regulations

Lynn Bergeson

By Lynn Bergeson

Several well-organized nongovernmental organizations have initiated campaigns to heighten awareness about the presence of chemicals in our bodies to jump-start the collection of biomonitoring data. The results of these initiatives will influence risk-assessment practices, legislation and regulatory developments for years to come.

Biomonitoring is the laboratory measurement of chemicals in blood, urine and human tissue. Looking for chemicals in the body is not new; scientists have known for decades that our bodies take in chemicals through breathing, eating, drinking and absorption through our skin. Regulatory agencies have relied upon biomonitoring data in public health situations for decades. Biological exposure indices, for example, have been created for more than 40 industrial chemicals. These indices represent guidelines for safe exposure levels of chemicals found in workers’; blood, urine or exhaled air.

These campaigns have focused the media’;s attention on biomonitoring. The appeal of the issue is obvious. What can be more compelling than the insidious presence of chemicals in our bodies? Especially since the significance, if any, of these findings tells us so little? The absence of toxicological data to define and characterize risk will continue to work to the detriment of the industrial and agricultural chemical communities, including the chemical processing community.  These communities will need to be mindful of enhanced media attention that will be focused on several important events in 2005.

For example, the next national survey conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) will be released next spring. In March 2001, CDC released its landmark “National Report on Human Exposure to Environmental Chemicals.”  The report catapulted the concept of biomonitoring into mainstream American thinking.

The backbone of the biomonitoring program is the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES), which consists of data collected in counties across the United States. The report, issued in 2001, tracked 27 chemicals. A more recent report, issued in January 2003, tracked 116 chemicals. The 2005 report will contain information about more chemicals and have more detail than prior surveys. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is also expected to issue several reports in 2005 and beyond involving biomonitoring.

In Europe, the Science, Children, Awareness-Raising, Legal Instruments and Evaluation (SCALE) initiative, which focuses on monitoring children for links to chemical exposure, will continue to highlight this issue in European Union countries. Finally, the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare in Japan is working on several projects involving biomonitoring, one of which involves the study of umbilical cord blood, maternal blood and milk. The results are expected to generate significant attention.

Chemical producers and users should care deeply about biomonitoring data because these data already have influenced regulatory decisions, and will continue to do so. The data are now being used in risk assessments. Federal and state draft legislation designed to generate these data -- and make the chemical community pay for them -- will also continue to be considered. The Healthy Californians Biomonitoring Program, also known as SB 1168, would evaluate 57 chemicals and would be financed by a fee on the first point-of-sale of chemicals by manufacturers and non-retail distributors.

This legislation died in committee this year, but many believe it will be reintroduced next year. Other state legislatures are expected to consider similar legislation. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) is considering reintroducing her 2002 health-tracking bill, which relies on biomonitoring data. Many believe the pace of such legislative initiatives could pick up if leadership in Congress and/or the White House changes with the November election.

Despite uncertainties about the biological relevance of these data, one thing is certain: Biomonitoring data are influencing and will continue to influence global, national and state regulatory and legislative developments for years to come. Chemical producers and users should invest in research and advocacy programs to ensure that these data are interpreted properly and do not become the basis of misinformation.

Lynn Bergeson is regulatory editor for Chemical Processing magazine. She is a founding shareholder of Bergeson & Campbell, P.C., a Washington, D.C.-based law firm concentrating on chemical industry issues. Contact her at The views expressed herein are solely those of the author. This column is not intended to provide, nor should be construed as, legal advice.

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