Found in the bodies of almost every study participant: Triclosan, a relatively new chemical and a key ingredient in antibacterial soap.Photograph courtesy of Jasper Nance.

Not to get all Star Wars on you, but we’re all delicately interconnected in many ways. One of them is this: It’s quite possible that we’re all carrying around a little nonstick pan coating inside us. This according to data collected by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, crunched and released today by the Program on Reproductive Health and the Environment at UCSF.

So: Nonstick pan coating is like the force. But probably less awesome.

This may or may not be a big deal. Some studies have shown that the chemicals in nonstick pan coating, also known as perfluorinated compounds, or PFCs, interfere with our hormonal levels. But wouldn’t it be nice to know how much nonstick pan coating we were carrying around in comparison to the rest of the country?

“Local” proves to be a tricky thing when it comes to CDC data. The CDC gathers some of the most comprehensive data out there on the subject of which chemicals are found in which Americans, but when it comes to the pregnant women it’s been analyzing for environmental contamination, it follows a code of secrecy so strict that it doesn’t even tell the women in the study what it finds in their bodies — let alone tell us what parts of the country those women live in.

The data crunched in the study released today, “Environmental Chemicals in Pregnant Women in the US: NHANES 2003-2004,” which looks at levels across America, is nonetheless fascinating. The 268 pregnant women analyzed for 163 chemicals were carrying some interesting passengers.

Almost every woman carried residues of DDE, which is formed when the pesticide DDT, which has been banned in this country since 1972, breaks down. Ditto for polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, commonly found in diesel exhaust, grilled meat and the insides of comets. And ditto for triclosan, which leaves the body in a matter of days, but is so omnipresent (it’s especially found in everything antibacterial and antifungal) that it showed up in surprisingly high levels.

And also ditto for phthalates, which make plastic squishy (meaning that they’re in almost everything soft and plastic) and perfumes smellier (meaning that they’re in almost everything with added scent). Most women tested positive for four varieties of phthalates; some had as many as nine. Phthalates are banned in Mexico, Japan, Argentina and the European Union, but here they’re only banned in toys intended for children ages three and under, on the grounds that there is some evidence that they affect the male reproductive system — especially in the “preventing testicles from descending” department.

Information like this is unsettling, one of the reasons that Ami Zota, Sc.D., M.S., one of the authors of the UCSF study and a fellow at the Program on Reproductive Health and the Environment, hypothesizes that the women studied by the CDC aren’t told about their own test results — because many medical professionals think it’s scary information to hand off to another human being without telling them what the results of a test like this will mean for them and their children. Long-term effects of chemicals like these are difficult to figure out, since there are so many variables involved, and negative effects haven’t even been proven for many of the chemicals tested for.

UCSF is now compiling its own data set, gathered from pregnant patients seeking care at SF General. It’s expensive — about $2,000 to $5,000 just to run a full chemical analysis on a single woman. But the study, conducted in partnership with the State of California and UC Berkeley, will give researchers the chance to study chemical loads in lower-income pregnant women, a possible high-risk group. Eventually, the State intends to extend this “biomonitoring” program to different regions within California, as well as to other groups that may be at higher risk for acquiring high chemical loads — like firefighters, nail salon workers and people with lower incomes.

A few years ago, Zota successfully petitioned the CDC for access to its chemical residue data for just California. The security was impressive: While the data for the entire country is available for anyone to download, to see the state numbers, Zota had to travel to the National Center for Health Statistics in Huntsville, Maryland, where she was allowed to analyze the data in a room with a computer with no Internet connection. When she was finished, staff scrutinized the data she had analyzed and allowed her to cut and paste it into a Word document and copy it to the flash drive they’d confiscated when she came in.

The data was worth it. Another reason given for protecting regional data is that the number of people studied in each state is so small as to render most number-crunching around differences between them and the overall population useless. That wasn’t the case with the Californians. On average they had twice the amount of PBDE flame retardant chemicals in their blood than the rest of America, probably due to what Zota describes as the state’s “interesting furniture standards,” which have likely resulted in more PBDE chemicals being used here. While virtually every pregnant woman tested by the CDC had some level of PBDEs, prenatal exposures can lead to thyroid problems in pregnant women and possibly impair brain development in the fetus, so it’s useful to know that California’s regulatory decisions could come with some tradeoffs.

The SF General study is still in the process of recruiting subjects, but the results are starting to trickle in. So far, news is good — another contaminant banned from many consumer products in the ’70s is showing up at remarkably low levels, a reminder that things do change.

In this study, participants will be given their test results. “Our ideals around a patient’s right to know are just too strong,” says Zota. She and the other researchers have so far refrained from testing themselves. “It’s tempting,” says Zota. “I’ve wanted to do it for years. But for now, it’s just too expensive.”

Heather Smith

Heather Smith covers a beat that spans health, food, and the environment, as well as shootings, stabbings, various small fires, and shouting matches at public meetings. She is a 2007 Middlebury Fellow...

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