Canada's politicians carry chemical cocktail

by Martin Mittelstaedt
Globe and Mail Update
Wed. Jan. 3, 2007

Toronto - Tests conducted on four prominent federal politicians, including Health Minister Tony Clement, have found all of them carry in their bodies trace levels of dozens of potentially dangerous pollutants.

The testing, which was also done on NDP leader Jack Layton, Environment Minister Rona Ambrose, and Liberal environment critic John Godfrey, found a bewildering cocktail of contaminants in the elected officials. They all had residues from stain repellants, flame retardants, and insecticides, among other deleterious substances.

The results came from an unusual chemical check up organized by Environmental Defence, an activist group that had previously tested ordinary Canadians and found extensive contaminant burdens in everyone evaluated. Based on this finding, it challenged the elected leaders to see how they stacked up and the four volunteered to do so.

For reasons that are unclear, the politicians had a significantly higher burden of chemical contaminates in their bodies than other Canadians the group has tested.

Rick Smith, executive director of Environmental Defence, said politicians may live in ways that expose them to more pollution.

"Maybe its attributable to the unique lifestyles these guys lead," Mr. Smith said. "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."

The results of the tests were released yesterday [Jan 3] by Environmental Defence.

Blood and urine samples from the politicians were evaluated for the presence of 103 pollutants. These included the polybrominated diphenyl ethers used to make computers and mattresses more flame resistant, the perfluorinated chemicals used to make Teflon coated frying pans and fast food wrappers, and DDT, the feared insecticide that was banned decades ago but is so persistent it is still circulating in the environment.

Of the quartet, Mr. Godfrey had the highest number of pollutants , at 55, but contaminants weren't a partisan political issue because the group was remarkably similar. Mr. Clement and Mr. Layton both had 54 each and Ms. Ambrose had 49. All the politicians had levels of mercury at more elevated levels than the ordinary Canadians.

Mr. Layton participated in the study because he wondered about his own burden of substances. "Frankly, I was curious. I suspected that I was probably well populated with the chemicals that you find in an urban area," he said.

Mr. Layton had the highest levels of flame retardants of the four politicians.

Mr. Godfrey said the results show "no one is immune from picking up dangerous chemicals, no matter how healthy a lifestyle you lead."

The substances the politicians were tested for have been found to cause cancer, disrupt normal hormone function, and lead to birth defects, among other problems, and each politician had a unique chemical profile as individualist as a finger print.

Mr. Godfrey, for instance, carried the highest level of organophosphate pesticides and his readings were 45 times higher than Ms. Ambrose, who had the lowest levels. Ms. Ambrose, by contrast, had the highest arsenic levels, which were nearly four times higher than Mr. Godfrey's.

Both Ms. Ambrose and Mr. Clement issued statements on their contaminant levels lauding actions the minority Conservative government has taken to reduce this type of pollution, 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.

None of the individual contaminants found in the politicians were at levels currently viewed as dangerous, although some, such as flame retardants and non-stick chemicals, have only recently come under intense scientific scrutiny and some types have recently been withdrawn from use because of health concerns.

Mr. Smith said regulators in Canada and elsewhere currently do not perform health assessments on whether the dozens of chemicals people have in their bodies interact with each other, something he contends is a major oversight.

However, some people down play the risks, contending that the chemical burdens in the politicians would have to be far higher to have adverse health effects.

"Just because you find something doesn't mean it's doing anything. It's a question of amounts," said Dr. Joe Schwarcz, director of McGill University's Office for Science and Society in Montreal.

Mr. Smith said the politicians were privately taken aback when they saw the results and found they had detectible levels of so many chemical pollutants. "They were surprised as heck by the results," Mr. Smith said.

He said this is a typical reaction because most people view themselves as health conscious about food and exercise, but the pollutants have become so ubiquitous in the environment they're almost impossible avoid.

"They're is still this tendency to say, ‘Well, I go to the gym every day, I watch what I eat,'" he said. "What these results reinforce is how completely pervasive these pollutants are and that no one in this country is so powerful that they can escape the effects of this pollution."

Mr. Smith said the government needs to phase out the use of chemicals found to be harmful and replace them with safer alternatives.