Åke Bergman of Stockholm University tells me he has received the results of a chemical analysis of my blood, which measured levels of flame-retarding compounds called polybrominated diphenyl ethers. In mice and rats, high doses of PBDEs interfere with thyroid function, cause reproductive and neurological problems, and hamper neurological development. Little is known about their impact on human health.
"I hope you are not nervous, but this concentration is very high," Bergman says with a light Swedish accent. My blood level of one particularly toxic PBDE, found primarily in U.S.-made products, is 10 times the average found in a small study of U.S. residents and more than 200 times the average in Sweden. The news about another PBDE variant—also toxic to animals—is nearly as bad. My levels would be high even if I were a worker in a factory making the stuff, Bergman says.
In fact I'm a writer engaged in a journey of chemical self-discovery. Last fall I had myself tested for 320 chemicals I might have picked up from food, drink, the air I breathe, and the products that touch my skin—my own secret stash of compounds acquired by merely living. It includes older chemicals that I might have been exposed to decades ago, such as DDT and PCBs; pollutants like lead, mercury, and dioxins; newer pesticides and plastic ingredients; and the near-miraculous compounds that lurk just beneath the surface of modern life, making shampoos fragrant, pans nonstick, and fabrics water-resistant and fire-safe.
The tests are too expensive for most individuals—National Geographic paid for mine, which would normally cost around $15,000—and only a few labs have the technical expertise to detect the trace amounts involved. I ran the tests to learn what substances build up in a typical American over a lifetime, and where they might come from. I was also searching for a way to think about risks, benefits, and uncertainty—the complex trade-offs embodied in the chemical "body burden" that swirls around inside all of us.
Now I'm learning more than I really want to know.