Compounds Affect Human Health
UPdate spring 2005
In March 2003, Environment Canada organized meetings to
develop an approach to reducing volatile organic compound (VOC) emissions from
consumer and commercial products. VOCs are a precursor of the particulate matter
which, together with ozone, creates smog, a contributor to global warming. Thie
following presentation was made by Sheila Cole, a member of the Environmental
Health Association of Nova Scotia Advisory Board who participated in the meeting
along with representatives of industry and government.
Today we face a critical condition in the
world relating to industrial pollution and other emissions which has lead to the
breakdown of ecosystems and human health. It is now common knowledge that at
least 70,000 chemicals in regular daily use impact our lives on a continuous
basis, challenging our immune systems. The cumulative load of things that affect
our health has been called the "total load concept" by environmental medicine
specialists. Body burden is another term used for this concept. Some people
liken this burden to a rain barrel, filling drop by drop until it finally
VOCs form a large component of one's total body burden. They float around in the
accumulate in the soil and end up in groundwater. In terms of total body burden,
we find the same chemicals constantly surfacing in many different places on a
daily basis. Many of these are VOCs such as styrene, benzene, toluene, xylene,
trichloroethelene -to name a few. When one looks at the list of chemicals found
in hospital air, homes, schools, offices, shopping malls, commercial cleaning
products, and even exhaled air, VOCs always feature prominently.
A US Environmental Protection Agency study examining the exhaled breath of 355
urban residents in New Jersey found that exhaled breath contained chloroform,
trichloroethane, benzene, styrene, o-xylene, carbon tetrachloride, xylene,
dichlorobenzene, ethyl benzyne, trichloroethelene, and tetrachloroethelene. Tom
Dann of Environment Canada told me that benzene and tetrachlorethylene are two
of the highest VOC values measured in the air in my city of Halifax.
Considering the ubiquitousness of so many of these chemicals, it is not
surprising that several million Canadians now suffer from Multiple Chemical
Sensitivities (MCS), whereby they are so sensitive to chemical exposure that
even small amounts can trigger a reaction. MCS is an environmental illness.
Other illnesses now included in this category are: chronic fatigue syndrome,
fibromyalgia, asthma, Gulf War syndrome and
There is increasing evidence that constant low levels of chemical exposure can
be as damaging as single exposures. Chemical sensitivity was first identified
and documented by Dr. Theron Randolph in 1951. In his book, An Alternative
Approach to Allergies (1989), he cites US EPA data which indicate that over 300
foreign chemicals have been found in human body fat. Again, styrene, zylene,
toluene, and several benzenes are included. Several of these VOCs have also been
found on cholesterol plaques within arteries.
Fragrance chemicals account for a significant part of the body burden. Fragrance
is used in everything from cleaning products and scented laundry strips to
perfumes, colognes, the new car scent and even scented toys. One fragrance
chemical gaining attention recently is phthalates – a family of industrial
chemicals linked to birth defects in the male reproductive system. They are also
suspected of affecting the liver, kidneys, lungs and blood clotting capability.
A recent analysis of 72 off the shelf name brand beauty products found that 75%
The heavy chemical exposures that we endure are highly implicated in the huge
increase in cancers that are affecting so many Canadians and others around the
globe. This has been written about extensively by Dr. Samuel Epstein in his book
The Politics of Cancer. In an article called Reversing the Cancer Epidemic, Dr.
Epstein lays responsibility for this epidemic clearly at the feet of the
chemical industry. Dr. Epstein has outlined many solutions for reducing, phasing
out and eliminating some of the worst culprits completely. He has detailed
legislative and voluntary ways that both government and industry can approach
this problem. Many of these solutions are ones that we will hopefully be
exploring over the course of the meeting today and tomorrow.
My message is that we should seek to take measures that are thorough in scope
and which cut deeply into the load of toxins which are causing many to question
and discard the old slogan "better living through chemistry". Failure to reduce
the huge burden of chemicals to which we are exposed, of which VOCs are a
critical part, will result in billions and billions of taxpayer dollars being
spent in subsequent health care costs. The onus is on people like us in this
room today to address these issues and lead the way for positive change to
Sheila Cole is an environment and health educator,
and writer who lives in Halifax.