Chemical bracelet detects toxic, banned substances

Talk Box: Exposure to harmful chemicals: What can you do?

PORTLAND, Ore. -- We're all exposed to chemicals during the course of each day. They're in furniture, electronics, children's toys and more.

Some are totally harmless, while others have been linked to a range of serious health problems. But as it stands now, we know very little about the source of these chemicals or when we're exposed to them.

Bethany Thomas wants to find out. As a mother of three, she tries her best to keep potentially harmful chemicals away from her family. That includes using as many toxic-free products as possible.

"We try and live as healthy as we can," she said.

Thomas and 27 other people volunteered back in May to participate in an experiment by the Environmental Defense Fund. The project was called a "Week in Chemicals."

For one week, Thomas and I both wore a special wristband developed by scientists at Oregon State University. It absorbed any chemicals in the environment we all came across.

The experiment would not show where the chemicals came from, or the concentration at which we were exposed; however, it would give a snapshot of what we encountered during a week.

Bethany's results: Pesticides, flame retardants

Despite all Thomas' efforts to keep toxins out of her environment, scientists found 19 different chemicals in her wristband. They included pesticides, and chemicals from personal care products and flame retardants, which are often found in furniture and carpeting.

The National Institutes of Health has linked flame retardant exposure to memory and learning problems, lower IQ and advanced puberty.

"It's overwhelming," said Thomas.

Keely's results: Banned toxin linked to cancer

I also try my hardest to avoid any and all things toxic. That was reflected, somewhat, in my results.

Of the 28 test participants, I was the only one who did not have any flame retardants in my wristband. On the other hand, my band tested positive for ten other chemicals, including one that's been banned in children's products. That chemical has been shown in some studies to cause cancer, developmental effects or endocrine disruption.

"These are invisible things in our environment, things we should be concerned about," said Jennifer Coleman, Health Outreach Director for the Oregon Environmental Council. "But you can't shop your way out of the problem."

Coleman said under current law, manufacturers are not required to list these chemicals on their product labels. That means we could be buying all sorts chemicals without even knowing it.

"What you're finding in this project is a snapshot of the kinds of things you might be exposed to," said Coleman. "It doesn't tell you how much you're exposed to and what quantities, it doesn't tell you what risk is actually present there. It just tells you that they're out there in your environment."

For Thomas, the test has been an eye-opening experience even if it has been an unsettling one.

"You expect that somebody is watching out for you, that somebody is keeping an eye on these things, but that's not the case," she said.

Thomas ultimately wants our lawmakers to demand stricter regulations on chemicals in all the products we and our children use.

"We should be able to trust that we're safe," she said.

John Tierney contributed to this report.


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