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Canadian politicians carry cocktail of chemicals




Four prominent Canadian officials have subjected themselves to a barrage of tests to detect traces of chemicals and are said to be shocked by the results.

The laboratory tests carried out on the politicians, including Health Minister Tony Clement, have found all of them carry trace amounts of dozens of potentially dangerous pollutants in their bodies. The other elected officials tested were NDP leader Jack Layton, Environment Minister Rona Ambrose, and Liberal John Godfrey, a critic of current environmental policies.

The testing which checked for over 100 chemicals was organized by Environmental Defense, the same environmental activism group that has previously tested members of the public in Canada and found widespread contamination with synthetic chemicals in everyone evaluated. The group then challenged the politicians to undergone the same testing to see how they compared, to which they agreed. The politician's results showed they had residues from stain repellents, flame retardants, and insecticides, amongst other undesirable substances.

In fact, for reasons unknown, the politicians had significantly higher amounts of chemical contaminants in their blood than the group that had been tested before. It could be that politicians are exposed to more of these chemicals as a result of their work. “Maybe its attributable to the unique lifestyles these guys lead,” Rick Smith, executive director of Environmental Defence, is quoted as saying. “Politicians have a very strange, very stressful lifestyle that results in them grabbing a bite to eat when they can and eating a lot of junk food.”

Extensive details of the test results were released by Environmental Defense on Jan 3 and give cause for concern, not only for the shocked politicians themselves, but for society at large. The list of contaminants detected in the bodies of the four politicians reads like a chemistry textbook or a chemical company's product brochure.

The testing involved taking blood and urine samples from the politicians and testing them for levels of 103 chemical pollutants. Pollutants that the lab involved sought to identify included DDT, the highly toxic pesticide that although banned decades ago, still persists in the environment. Also screened for were the polybrominated diphenyl ethers, the flame retardants used in products such as computers and soft furnishings, and perfluorinated chemicals used to make Teflon, the non-stick coating used on frying pans and an increasing number of everyday products.

The results show that all four politicians had a cocktail of chemicals in their bodies and that the group had a remarkably similar burden to each other. Mr. Godfrey's results showed the highest number of pollutants , at 55, followed by Mr. Clement and Mr. Layton both with 54 each and Ms. Ambrose with 49. Rather disturbingly for them, they all had levels of mercury at more elevated levels than the ordinary Canadians tested previously.

That said, the levels of individual chemicals present in each individual often varied widely, for instance, Ms. Ambrose had the highest arsenic levels, which were nearly four times higher than Mr. Godfrey's. By contrast, Mr. Godfrey carried the highest level of organophosphate pesticides at 45 times higher than Ms. Ambrose, who had the lowest levels of these chemicals.

Amazing as it might seem, many of the hundred or so chemicals screened for, and many thousands more that are in widespread use, aren't subject to safety testing before they are allowed on to the market. Of the up to 75,000 chemicals in use around the world, only a tiny fraction have undergone any testing to ascertain their effects on human health. To make the situation even more worrisome, the compounds that have actually been tested have only been assessed individually. As the politicians results show, each of us is walking around with dozens of chemical compounds within us. How these may affect our health in combination like this is anyone's guess, and it will surely be an extremely difficult task to find out. With regards to the chemicals detected in the politician's tests, a number are known to cause cancer, disrupt normal hormone function, cause neurological dysfunction and lead to birth defects.

Many, such as Dr. Sherry Rogers, a leading environmental medicine authority, feel that the growing toxic burden that we are accumulating in our bodies can explain the rapid rise of unexplained multisymptom illnesses such as chronic fatigue syndrome, multiple chemical sensitivity and Gulf War syndrome. These and other related conditions are often referred to as environmental illnesses due to the assumption that environmental toxins play a major role in their development. Dr. Rogers believes that all of these illnesses are the result of "toxic overload", the accumulation of synthetic chemicals and other toxins in the body to the point where it can no longer detoxify itself effectively. This is when symptoms start to arise.

Some still dismiss the idea that low levels of chemicals, no matter how many may be present in combination, can cause disease, and that only high levels that cause acute toxicity are a danger. Increasing numbers of research studies are showing this idea to be fallacy however. Recently an article published in Chemical Research in Toxicology reported on cell experiments showing that arsenic, the heavy metal of which Ms. Ambrose had high levels, interacts at extremely low levels with several hormone receptors. The dose-response curves produced by the researcher's experiments contradict the classic view in toxicology that the "dose makes the poison". The researchers say that the results indicate that low dose arsenic is linked to a range of human health conditions, including cancer, diabetes, developmental problems and cardiovascular disease, and that this may result from its ability to disrupt hormone mechanisms. They also note that the negative effects arsenic has on health at low doses are almost completely different to the well known toxic effects at high doses.

In addition, research on rats has demonstrated that chronic exposure to low levels of various chemicals causes hypersensitivity in the limbic system of the brain. Once sensitized, the rats brains become overactive when exposed to minute levels of the same chemicals. It is thought that this mechanism might explain the symptoms experienced by people suffering from multiple chemical sensitivity.

Mr. Smith noted that regulators in Canada and much of the developed world currently do not perform health assessments on whether the dozens of chemicals people have in their bodies interact with each other, something he says is a major oversight.

The politicians involved in the testing were said to be surprised at just how many chemicals were present in their bodies. Experts say this is a common reaction as many people consider themselves to be healthy, they go to the gym, try to eat well, and just assume they have nothing to worry about. The testing carried out by Environmental Defense on both the politicians, and the group of ordinary Canadians, demonstrates that nobody can avoid the buildup of chemical residues in their bodies as they are now so ubiquitous in the environment. (It's possible to reduce your exposure however. See our chemical avoidance tips).

The tests on the politicians have received widespread media coverage and should help to push health concerns over everyday chemical products up the political agenda not just in Canada, but throughout the world. Environmental Defense and other organizations, such as National Geographic, who last year sent one of their reporters for $15,000 worth of testing in the same vein, are doing a great job of bringing this issue to the attention of the public and policy makers. Governments are now taking notice and taking action. Both Ms. Ambrose and Mr. Clement issued statements on their contaminant levels and lauded actions the minority Conservative government in Canada has taken to reduce levels of chemicals people are exposed to, such as a decision late last year to fast track safety evaluations for 200 chemicals in widespread use that had never been given detailed study. In Europe an even more ambitious plan to test and regulate chemicals known has REACH was recently agreed upon by member nations.

So thank you to Environmental Defense and others working to highlight the dangers of the multitude of chemical products most people use without thinking twice. Your efforts are clearly working and will hopefully lead to safer products and a cleaner environment.

Learn more about Environmental Defense and their chemical pollutant testing results at


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