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FEATURE ARTICLE

Human Biomonitoring of Environmental Chemicals

Measuring chemicals in human tissues is the "gold standard" for assessing people's exposure to pollution

Ken Sexton, Larry Needham, James Pirkle


Which environmental chemicals should we be most wary of? Identifying the most potent threats isn't easy, as actual human exposure can be quite different than air, water or soil concentrations. While some models of human contact with toxicants have accurately estimated the risk of, for example, DDT exposure from eating fish, other models have been famous failures, including the attempts to calculate uptake of Agent Orange among U.S. service personnel in Vietnam. One solution to this uncertainty is biomonitoring, the analysis of environmental chemicals in human tissues. In this article, Sexton, Needham and Pirkle describe the CDC's use of biomarkers to chronicle exposure to more than a hundred compounds, including pesticides, dioxins, tobacco smoke and lead, even in concentrations as low as parts-per-quadrillion. They go on to discuss the findings and policy implications of the 2003 CDC report on these data, parts of which challenge our assumptions about pollution and public health.


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