Polluted People?

California State Sen. Deborah Ortiz (search), D-Sacramento, is pushing legislation intended to scare Californians about their own bodies. Doing the bidding of environmental extremists, apparently, is more important to Sen. Ortiz than the health and welfare of her constituents. 

In March, Sen. Ortiz introduced California Sen. Bill 1168 (search) requiring the monitoring of chemicals in the bodies and breast milk of Californians. This "biomonitoring" bill passed the Senate Environmental Quality Committee last week. The bill calls for examination by June 2006 of breast milk for the presence of chemical contaminants in three economically, racially and geographically diverse communities. The program will expand to include additional communities by 2008. Participants' bodies will also be evaluated for the presence of "toxic" chemicals. 

Sen. Ortiz's "rationale" for the bill goes as follows: There are an estimated 125 million Americans who have at least one chronic health condition and there are an estimated 85,000 synthetic chemicals (search) registered for use in the U.S. with another 2,000 added each year. 

That's it. That's her entire "reasoning" — two distinct observations that have no demonstrable relationship between them despite decades and billions of dollars of research. 

People can suffer from chronic disease (search) for many reasons including genetics, poor diet, smoking, overconsumption of alcohol, lack of exercise and lack of adequate health care. The cause or causes of many chronic diseases are simply a mystery. But there's no basis in any fact for assuming that the chemicals and other substances we are exposed to in the course of ordinary daily lives play any role in the onset of chronic disease. 

We know that trace levels of many chemicals and other substances can be detected in the body. But so what? While all substances may be toxic, they're only toxic when exposures to them are sufficiently high. We know this from carefully controlled clinical studies in humans. Levels of substances that are high enough to cause health problems have not been observed in prior biomonitoring studies, including by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (See http://www.foxnews.com/story/0,2933,75808,00.html

Moreover, the only way to observe toxic effects from substances in laboratory animals is essentially to poison the animals with so-called "maximum tolerated doses" — levels of exposure that are simply not experienced by people in the ordinary course of their lives. The 85,000 man-made chemicals referred to in Sen. Ortiz's bill — a figure used by enviros to give the impression that we are bathed in a sea of chemicals — pale in comparison to the more than 20 million natural chemical compounds, many of which can be quite toxic at relatively low doses. 

If we're going to start trying to link low-level exposures of substances found in the environment with disease, we're going to need a much better plan than Sen. Ortiz's chemical witch hunt — which is what she's really talking about. 

Supporting, if not pressing Sen. Ortiz and her bill is a coalition of anti-chemical activist groups operating under the moniker the California Body Burden Campaign (search). (I suppose "Put-the-chemical-industry-out-of-business Campaign" as a name would be a little too obvious.) Most notable in the campaign is a left-wing group called the National Environmental Trust (search) that once tried to scare the public about chemicals used in the production of rubber duckies and other plastic toys. (See http://www.foxnews.com/story/0,2933,79861,00.html

The California Body Burden Campaign claims the bill would create the first ever statewide biomonitoring program to measure "pollution in people." The real purpose, however, is simply to scare people thereby building political pressure to have various chemicals banned — along with the many useful and lifesaving products made from them. 

In addition to the activists' cynical exploitation of the public's proclivity for fear, the biomonitoring effort would divert California's already limited public health resources from beneficial services to an effort that will produce absolutely no tangible benefits and even increase health care expenses. It's easy to imagine people running to their physicians upon discovering that they might have trace levels of chemicals in their bodies. 

Where there's a health scare, unscrupulous personal injury lawyers can never be far behind. It's also easy to imagine lawyers filing suit on the grounds of "chemical trespass," (search) — suing, say, an industrial facility for exposing nearby residents to a chemical (albeit at trace levels) without the residents' consent, even though there is no risk of harm whatsoever from such exposures. 

The biomonitoring bill is likely to pass California's unthinking, feel-good legislative bodies, leaving its fate up to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. That will be a good opportunity for his next movie sequel, "Terminator IV: The End of Junk Science-Based Biomonitoring."  

Steven Milloy is the publisher of JunkScience.com, an adjunct scholar at the Cato Institute and the author of Junk Science Judo: Self-Defense Against Health Scares and Scams (Cato Institute, 2001).

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