Chemicals in Our Bodies

If you were placing bets on the most “chemical-free” demographic in the U.S., you’d probably assume the majority of high-income people are safe. After all, money means the opportunity to live above pollutants, right? Not quite.

According to a recent study from the University of Exeter Medical School in the U.K., people of different socioeconomic status in the U.S. aren't any more or less imbued with harmful chemical pollutants—they’re simply contaminated with different kinds.

Even at higher socioeconomic levels, there is rampant exposure to contaminants, including chemicals and toxins. These can come from cigarettes, seafood, sunscreen, fertilizer, car exhaust, cleaning solutions, dry cleaning…you get the picture. In a world of manufactured goods, there are chemicals everywhere.

“Our results suggested that whilst chemicals [tend] to associate with socioeconomic status, half of these were found at higher levels in wealthier individuals,” said one of the study's authors Dr. Jessica Tyyrell, an associate research fellow at the European Centre for Environment and Human Health in Truro, England.

Hear Dr. Tyyrell explain how her team analyzed the build-up of chemicals in people's bodies in this video.

The chemicals found in people of one socioeconomic status aren’t any better or worse for you than those found in others, says Tyyrell. And because the production of new chemicals outpaces investigation into their effects, it’s hard to know the full extent of potential health impacts.

It's All About What You Eat & Where You Work

Researchers used data from the U.S. National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) to analyze links between chemical concentrations in the human body and a person's socioeconomic status (SES). Respondents were Hispanic, white, and black Americans between the ages of 18 and 74. Nearly 180 chemical toxicants in five socioeconomic "waves" were measured and compared with poverty income ratios.

Of all possible chemical toxicants, 18 were found to vary significantly between three or more NHANES waves. Wealthier individuals had higher levels of mercury, arsenic, caesium, and benzophenone-3. Lower SES individuals had higher levels of lead, cadmium, bisphenol A (BPA), and three different phthalates.

While the reason for these varying chemical concentrations isn’t clear, chances are that lifestyle, geographic location, and diet play a big part. Individuals of higher SES tend to consume more shellfish and fish, which leads to higher levels of mercury in the body. And sunscreen use increases levels of benzophenone-3.

Higher levels of lead and cadmium in the bodies of people in lower SES might be the result of higher smoking rates, work in the construction industry, and diet. It turns out we’re not just what we eat—we’re what we use, breathe, and live in as well.

"The health effects of complex chemical mixtures need to be considered in more detail. People are exposed to low levels of a range of chemicals and currently we have no understanding of the health effects," says Tyyrell.

An ideal next step for Tyyrell's team would be to look into the long term effects of chemical build-up across an entire population.

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