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Pollution in People

Dr. Betsy Edhlund Holding a Container of Urine Collected in Conjuction with the Minneapolis Children's Arsenic Study, MDH, PHL+
Pollutants in the Human Body

Chemicals make up every part of us! Some of them remain vital to our health, while others might actually hurt us. Public health laboratories can measure some of these potentially harmful chemicals in our bodies (usually blood or urine) to better understand our exposures.

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Did you know that water is a chemical? Chemicals make up every little bit of our world, both our internal and external environments. Without them we would not exist!

While synthetic chemicals have dramatically improved our quality of life (think plastic), their residues remain widespread, not only in consumer products, but also in our water, soil, air and food. Chemicals can be toxic, though, depending on the dose. Public health professionals increasingly express concern about human exposure to chemicals in our environment.

Many questions exist, such as: which of these potentially toxic chemicals get into our bodies, how often and in what doses, how long do they stay there, do they impact children or fetuses, do specific population groups experience elevated exposures and finally, what relationship does the presence of certain chemicals in our bodies have on the development of disease, abnormality or even death.

Many organizations (including APHL) believe that one of the best ways to address these important questions is through “biomonitoring” - a rigorous scientific process that measures levels of environmental chemicals in human tissues and fluids. Although we know that over 80,000 chemicals remain approved for sale in the US, we only monitor people for fewer than 300 of those chemicals.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) measures more than 250 chemicals in the blood of US citizens every few years to determine what happens to chemicals we use every day. The current design of CDC’s National Report on Human Exposure to Environmental Chemicals, however, does not allow calculation of exposure estimates on a state-by-state or city-by-city basis. For example, CDC cannot extract a subset of data and examine levels of blood lead for a specific state. In order to produce such data, states need the capability and capacity to conduct biomonitoring assessments statewide or in communities or groups where chemical exposure is a concern.

State & local environmental health laboratories remain essential to filling this gap: through their highly-trained chemists and advanced technologies they can determine what chemicals actually are in people. To better fill this gap, APHL developed a five-year plan to establish a National Biomonitoring Network of public health laboratories.