Sitting in a plastic chair in a small office, I wear a medical coat rolled up to my knees and I have an X-ray machine tied to my shin.
The machine is analyzing my bones for lead while an expert monitors the streaming readings on a screen.
Earlier that day, after arriving at a Mount Sinai facility in New York, I dropped a urine sample that will be studied for 81 chemicals in much more advanced laboratory tests than a regular medical examination.
A couple of weeks earlier, I spent five days wearing a silicone bracelet designed to measure dangerous chemicals in my environment. I wore cleaning my apartment, applied cosmetics and went to work.
This whole test came during a six-month journey to try to answer what seems like a very simple question: how toxic am I?
As a reporter for an environment for the Washington DC Guardian, I noticed a growing number of experts expressing concerns about how Americans are exposed to potentially toxic chemicals only by living our daily lives.
But how interested should people be? How worried he should be I to be?
Childhood in Cancer Alley
I grew up in southern Louisiana, where cancer is a common part of life.
In Baton Rouge, I passed the industrial facilities churning out gasoline and petrochemicals on the airport units or my favorite kids' shop for lunch. At home, I rarely thought of those chemicals when I moved my father's dirty overalls from the washer dryer.
So when the Guardian decided to explore how Americans encounter toxic substances, I couldn't take my mind off my own concerns. I convinced my parents to call the people in my extended family who died from cancer. We stopped counting at eight.
The journey of an hour between my hometown and New Orleans is technically called the "petrochemical corridor", but other Louisians know him as Cancer Alley.
In Louisiana from 2011 to 2015, approximately 188 people out of 100,000 died each year from cancer, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). This is higher than all but three states: Kentucky, Mississippi and West Virginia. A city outside of New Orleans, of which the Guardian refers in a series during this year, has a cancer rate 50 times higher than the national average due to the toxic air.
Our "body burden"
Humans are more vulnerable to chemicals in the uterus and youth, so my concerns are not unreasonable. Even the most health conscious people have carcinogens and other harmful chemicals in their bodies – from plastics, cosmetics, detergents, pesticide-soaked food, polluted air and water, and the many other exhibits that are part of modern life.
All chemicals together form what is known as a person's "body burden". Almost none of us can test ourselves to see our body loads. The doctors' offices do not offer the option and private laboratories do not regularly test people and cost thousands of dollars.
With this in mind, I decided to quantify the risks to a person's health from chemicals. As the complex world of toxicology developed, I realized how much none of us knows.
Of the tens of thousands of chemicals on the market, scientists have closely studied the health impacts of around 50 to 100. The CDC records some of the average levels shown in the bodies of a representative sample of Americans.
We know what the average levels are, but we don't know which levels are safe. Furthermore, we do not know how various chemicals react together in the human body.
Individually, some of the commonly used chemicals and in human bodies are known to be linked to cancer, organ problems, reproductive difficulties, endocrine disorders, obesity, diabetes, birth defects, neurological problems and developmental delays. Together, we don't know what they do.
A data analysis by the CDC found that mixtures of chemicals can increase toxicity in the body. But chemicals are typically studied only for their individual effects. And existing research covers only a small part of the chemicals to which people are exposed – many others are unknown.
I didn't understand much of this when I started working on this story.
The science of "exposures"
I consider myself a relatively prudent consumer. I buy most of my soaps and lotions at Whole Foods, but I won't look closely at the hair products in my salon or the cleaning products I've always used. I eat mainly organic when I cook at home, but I often eat outside the home. Plastic is everywhere in my life, even if I try to buy as little as possible. I bought a special mattress specifically to avoid flame retardants.
So I was fascinated when I first heard about industry leaders – the rapidly growing study of how toxic chemicals affect a body over a lifetime.
"I like to say that the exhibition is approximately where genomics took place 15 years ago," says Robert Wright, director of the Institute for Exhibition Research on Mount Sinai in New York.
"There is a growing awareness among geneticists that genetic information in the absence of environmental information does not have much value because it all interacts."
In the United States, says Wright, companies start using new chemicals and don't stop using them unless people get sick and can show how it happened. The medicines are tested before the market, but most of the other products are not.
I know, but hearing it from an expert makes me hyper-energetic about my environment. I start wearing socks after cleaning my floors. In a restaurant, I smell disinfectant and shudder at the cutlery on the table.
Looking for tests
Wright tells me we can test my body for a small number of chemicals, but we won't know where my lives come from.
To examine my current risk, I can wear a newly designed silicone bracelet designed by another researcher that will show which toxic substances I find in a given week.
For a longer story, we would need to analyze my milk teeth, which I don't have. They would show signs of early exposure to toxic substances such as lead and pesticides.
As I start looking for tests, I also find Leonardo Trasande, a New York University doctor who helped a journalist with a similar experiment years ago. He tells me that unfortunately not much has changed since then.
Trasande suggests starting with four categories: phthalates, bisphenols, polybrominated diphenyl ether (flame retardants) and organophosphate pesticides.
In addition to ticking in products and foods, many of these chemicals enter the air, water and soil where they are manufactured and used.
I shoot through my daily life and hypothesize that I probably have moderate levels of all four categories.
How much do we want to know?
Wright, the expert on exposomics, says that people educated about risks can reduce their toxic loads, and this makes me feel my personal research is worth it.
However, Paolo Vineis, president of the environmental epidemiology of the Imperial College of London, tells me that I should consider the psychological impact of my research. He says he is worried about a future where people frequently test their exposures. "I'm not sure that that concern for pollution is good mental health," he says.
Andreas Kortenkamp, a researcher who observes the effects of chemical mixtures, says there are limits to how much people can do. "It requires a regulatory action from the government," he says.
What all experts agree on, however, is that it is best to maintain a healthy lifestyle – be active, eat fruit and vegetables and never smoke.
I'm not sure how much I really want to know until I talk to Philippe Grandjean, a Harvard environmental pollution specialist who divides his time between Copenhagen and Cambridge, Massachusetts.
His studies have made him an expert in lead, mercury and, more recently, non-stick perfluorinated chemicals, or PFAS, that most people have in their bodies.
"The lower you can get your exposure, the better, and simply use your brain," says Grandjean. There may be greater risks that we have not discovered "so we should try to limit our exposure to virtually all chemicals", he adds.
Grandjean is also iperaware. Do not scrape melted cheese from chemically treated pizza boxes. He doesn't eat microwaved popcorn in a bag.
If you can be so careful, I imagine you can throw out old perfumes and lotions. But for months, while I'm learning this invisible world, I try to keep my habits the same for our experiment.
The bracelet test
After a few weeks, Kim Anderson, who developed the Oregon State University chemical test bracelet that Wright told me about, sends me a thick resealable plastic bag with a Livestrong style bracelet.
I don't take it off for five days. It's bright orange and black and I can't help but notice it constantly. When I make up or clean a counter, I think about what it will show. When I take a deep breath, I wonder about the quality of the day's air.
A photographer comes to document my daily life and align my shower products on the edge of the tub. I feel overwhelmed: I don't know much about the ingredients in what I use.
A few weeks later, Wright and Mount Sinai volunteered to test me with some chemicals that the experts I interviewed highlighted as important. I take a train to New York City and visit the laboratory where my samples will be collected and analyzed. Expensive machinery moves everywhere.
I head to the bone scanner – which exposes me to a small fraction of the radiation involved in an annual dental radiograph. I was born in 1989, the lead of the year was gradually eliminated from gasoline. So, if I had been exposed, it probably came from old murals or drinking water pipes.
The full results of the main test will take time to be analyzed, but Andrew Todd – who operated the machine on my leg – tells me I'm in the clear. "Because you're not lighting up like a Christmas tree," he says.
Lead is the only heavy metal we are testing. The other tests we have organized, after months of phone calls and video calls, e-mails and train journeys, focus on the types of chemicals that most Americans encounter every day, which worries me more.
Review my products
With all my tests completed, I come home and start making some changes.
I collect what I understand to be my riskiest products in my entire home, according to a database and an application managed by the Environmental Working Group, a health advocacy group.
I keep some of my personal care and cosmetic products but I discard others. I find it hard to separate myself from a poor hair cream I used since I was a teenager and perfumes that remind me of my early years in Washington. I remind myself that cosmetics, and perfumes in particular, are largely unregulated in the United States.
Friends who listen to the project ask if I'm scared. But I'm really relieved to know that I'm making better decisions.
So the results come.
The results of the test from the bracelet
My bracelet was tested for 1,530 chemicals. Twelve were detected and the remaining 1,518 analytes were below the detection limit.
I Google on 12, and they sound terrifying, but I have no reference. There is no database for American chemicals exposed to on a daily basis.
Most on my list are fragrances used in body care products and cleaning products. There are several phthalates, the plasticisers used in food packaging and cosmetics. One is a flame retardant.
Olga Naidenko, senior scientist at the Environmental Working Group, passes the list with me. Note that phthalates can mimic hormones, affect the endocrine system and damage a developing fetus. He adds that the flame retardant – TPP – is used in some nail polishes and is another suspected endocrine disruptor.
Endocrine function is important for a healthy body. Endocrine disruptors can activate or deactivate or modify hormone-transmitted signals. They are related to developmental, neural, immune and reproductive problems.
Naidenko reminds me that the research cannot yet tell us the effects of the cumulative exposure to multiple chemicals simultaneously.
"According to EWG, this demand should have been resolved by the manufacturers of chemicals and products before the chemicals were released on the market," he says. "Meanwhile, EWG recommends avoiding various possible sources of exposure to endocrine disrupting chemicals in everyday products."
This, he adds, "will require some investigative work … since the ingredients are not generally listed on consumer products".
In the beginning, I don't aggressively pursue that detective job: I'm busy and I've lived this way without major problems for years, right? But I find that I can't help myself. By the end of the month I decide to start skipping pedicures and paint my toenails at home or not at all.
Results from the rest of my tests
When Mount Sinai completes my lab tests, Wright will not send them to me until we speak. He knows I would go directly to Google.
First ask if I have chronic illnesses or medications. I don't, but I take two pills a day for minor problems. I work in front of a computer, but I am otherwise active and I eat a lot of fruit and vegetables. I am also gluten intolerant, so skip many processed foods.
Wright tells me that I have at least 36 chemicals in my body – phthalates, flame retardants and pesticides, as well as some phenols used in plastic and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons from air pollution.
I also have a metabolite of cigarette smoke, called cotinine. I don't smoke and I'm rarely around with smokers, but I briefly visited relatives who were smoking two weeks before the test.
It is extraordinary for me that this may appear in my results.
"There is no" normal "level for any of these chemicals," says Wright.
But compared to the CDC data, I'm quite average for a person living in a city.
Two of my phthalate levels are two to three times higher than the American average. Those are the chemicals found in my imaginative soaps and shampoos. But they are also in the plastic medicine capsules that I swallow every day. And I'm in the food packaging – like the plastic sheets that wrap the American cheese. They are associated with obesity and reproductive problems, particularly for males.
"All these things are not directly causal, they are risk factors," explains Wright.
Even the average levels are not necessarily healthy.
Trasande says that he compared my numbers to the ranges of levels – rather than averages – found in Americans. He says that results like mine "are associated with a series of health consequences that can develop in people who do not have clinical symptoms of any disease or weight". I recommend avoiding exposures that I can.
But Wright says that since I have no diseases, like type 2 diabetes, he would not recommend extraordinary measures to limit my encounters with phthalates.
"My bet is that you're more in tune with most people and you probably have a lower risk," says Wright. He says he takes your health seriously, "More than anything else, it will help you regardless of what you are exposed to and practically no matter what your DNA says."
Based on a result, my high polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, I decide to get a big fan and open the window when I cook on my stove.
My kitchen doesn't have a drain. It is unclear whether the air pollution that my laboratories demonstrate comes from cars in a traffic jam or smoke inside my home.
"I think the important message is that we don't think all chemicals should be banned," says Wright. "Chemicals have positive uses. It's just that we need to be aware of what's inside (products) and then make informed choices."
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