Body Burden: Definition, Chemicals & Testing

Instructor: Patricia Jankowski

Patricia is an experienced registered nurse who has worked in various acute care areas as well as in legal nurse consulting. She also has a BSChE.

The amount of toxic chemicals and pollutants that have settled in a human body over the course of a lifetime is known as the body burden. This lesson is about body burden, the chemicals found, and the testing that is done.

Happy Birthday, Grandpa!

''Here comes Grandpa. He doesn't know we've planned a party for his 76th birthday, so keep quiet until he comes through the door!''

''Hi, kids! Oh, what is this, a cake? With 76 candles? I don't know if I can blow 'em all out!''

''Sure you can, Grandpa!''

''Well, I'll try it kids, and thanks for making such a fuss! But I'm a little short of breath and I think I know why. I just read something about all the chemicals and things I've been exposed to since the day I was born in 1941. I feel like I'm a walking landfill!''

Is my body a landfill?
Image of landfill

What is Body Burden?

The body burden is the total and measurable amount of toxic chemicals and pollutants that have accumulated in the body of a human being since birth. Over the past several decades, society has given us products that are made of materials whose safety around humans has not been studied. Food is sprayed with pesticides, children's toys are made of synthetics and plastics, and shampoo may contain carcinogens, or substances that cause cancer. What's more, the sale of most of these products is unregulated.

The Environmental Working Group Study

The Environmental Working Group (EWG) is a non-profit organization whose staff includes lawyers, scientists, doctors, and other professionals and concerned citizens. It was founded to study the effects of chemicals and pollutants in the environment on human beings, to influence consumer choices, and to increase public awareness. The results of a landmark study that they conducted with the help of Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York are published in the 2002 Public Health Reports.

In this study, nine adult Americans who did not work with chemicals in their jobs had their blood and urine tested for 210 different toxic chemicals, which were classified into seven groups. A total of 167 toxic chemical compounds were found in the nine study participants, with each one having an average of about 91 of them in their bodies. All of these chemicals are known to be associated with human health problems, some as serious and potentially fatal as cancer. Most of these chemicals were not even found in the environment as recently as 75 years ago. So the Grandpa of our introduction is fairly typical of an average American, and one of the unexpected birthday presents he received was not a very happy one.

The Chemicals

The seven categories of chemicals that were found in the EWG study subjects, as outlined in the report of the study results, were:

  • PCBs or polychlorinated biphenyls - These are industrial chemicals that are found in electrical appliances. Although they were banned in 1979, they are still present in the environment.
  • Dioxin-like PCBs - These are similar to PCBs and also occur from the burning of trash and from chlorine bleaching.
  • Dioxins and furans - These very toxic chemicals cause cancer and come from burning incinerators, chlorine bleaching, and the manufacture of pesticides.
  • Organophosphate pesticide metabolites - These are used in household pest-control insecticides and in other pesticides.
  • Organochlorine pesticides and metabolites - These are also used in insecticides and in pesticides.
  • Phthalates - These are found in nail polish, hair spray, cosmetics, drugs, and explosives.
  • Other semivolatile and volatile chemicals - These can be found in flavorings, paints, and coatings, and can be produced by the use of fossil fuels, such as gasoline.
  • Metals - These elemental toxic metals, such as mercury and lead, are produced by mining and various industrial activities.

Exposure to all of these chemicals is virtually inevitable since they are contained nearly everywhere in the environment. PCBs and dioxins are found in food, such as dairy products, meats, and fish. The organophosphate and organochlorine pesticides are sprayed on produce, and are found in fruits and vegetables. Phthalates are in the cosmetics we use and the carpets on our floors. Volatile organic compounds are easily absorbed into nearly anything and so are found in food, paint, and other popular consumer products. Metals flow from industrial sites through the groundwater and enter our drinking water supply.

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