Sitting on a plastic chair in a small office, I wear medical scrubs rolled up to my knees and I have an X-ray machine to strapping on my head.
The machine scans my bones for lead as an expert monitors readings that flow on to a screen.
Earlier that day, after arriving at the Mount Sinai facility in New York City, I dropped a urine sample which will be studied for 81 chemicals in laboratory tests much more advanced than on a regular doctor visit.
A few weeks earlier, I spent five days wearing a silicon wristband to measure dangerous chemicals in my environment. I wore it when I cleaned my flat, made make-up and commuted to work.
All these tests came during a six-month journey to try and answer what sounds like a very simple question: how poisonous am I?
As an environmental correspondent for the Guardian in Washington DC, I had noticed an increasing number of experts expressing concerns about how Americans are exposed to toxic chemicals that can live through our everyday lives.
But how anxious should individuals be? How anxious it should be I that?
Childhood Cancer Alley
I grew up in southern Louisiana, where cancer is a common part of life.
At Baton Rouge, I passed industrial facilities turning gasoline and petrochemicals on to the airport or my favorite little boy shop for lunch. At home, I rarely thought about those chemicals when I moved my father's dirty spot from the washer to the dryer.
So, when the Guardian decided to explore how Americans encounter toxic substances, I could not turn my mind away from my own quiet concerns. I was texting people in my extended family who have died of cancer, texting my parents. We gave the best to count on eight.
Technically, the one-hour journey between my home town and New Orleans is called a “petrochemical corridor”, but more Louisians know it as Alley Cancer.
In Louisiana from 2011 to 2015, around 188 people died out of 100,000 every year of cancer, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). That's higher than all but three states: Kentucky, Mississippi and West Virginia. One town outside New Orleans, which the Guardian is reporting in a series through this year, has a cancer rate 50 times higher than the national average due to toxic air.
Our body load;
People are more vulnerable to chemicals in the womb and in youth, t so my concerns are not unreasonable. Even the people most aware of health suffer from carcinogens and other harmful chemicals in their bodies – from plastics, cosmetics, cleaners, food to taste from pesticides, air and polluted water & The number of other revelations is part of modern life.
All the chemicals together make up a person's so-called “body load”. Almost any of us can prove ourselves to see the burdens of our own body. Doctors' offices do not offer the option and private laboratories do not routinely test individuals and cost thousands of dollars.
With that in mind, I identified the health risks of one person from chemicals. As the complex world of toxicology developed, I realized how much of us didn't know it.
From the tens of thousands of chemicals in trade, scientists have studied health effects around 50 to 100 closely. The GDC records some of the average levels shown in a representative sample body of Americans.
We know which levels are on average, but we don't know which levels are safe. Nor do we know how different chemicals react with each other in the human body.
Individually, it is known that some of the chemicals used are common and in human bodies are associated with cancer, organ problems, reproductive difficulties, endocrine disruption, obesity, diabetes, birth defects, t nervous problems and developmental delay. With each other, we don't know what they're doing.
One analysis of NDC data found that mixtures of chemicals can increase toxicity in the body. But chemicals are usually only studied for their individual effects. And the current research covers only a small fraction of chemicals that people come into contact with – many more are unknown.
I didn't understand most of this when I started working on this story.
The science of 'exposomics'
I believe myself as a relatively careful user. I'm buying most of my soaps and lotions in Whole Foods, but I'm not looking in detail at the hair products from my salon than the cleaning products I've had ever used. I eat it mainly when I cook at home, but I often eat it too. Plastic is everywhere in my life, although I try to buy as little as possible of it. I bought a special mattress specifically to avoid flame retardant.
So I was amazed when I first heard about exposomics – the growing study of how toxic chemicals affect a body over a lifetime.
“I like to say that geography is roughly where genomics was 15 years ago,” said Robert Wright, director of the Exposomic Research Institute in Mount Sinai in New York.
“Politicians are increasingly aware that genetic information in the absence of environmental information is not very valuable as everything interacts.” T
In the US, Wright says, companies are starting to use new chemicals and do not give them the best to use unless people get sick and can prove how it happened. Medicines are tested before the market, but most other products are not.
I know this, but hearing it from a specialist makes me more aware of my environment. I started wearing socks after cleaning my floors. In a restaurant, I smell a disinfectant and smell as the silverware rested on the table.
Search for tests
Wright tells me that I can test my body for a small number of chemicals but I wouldn't know where in my life they come from.
To explore my risk today, I can wear a new silicon wristband designed by another researcher who will show what toxic substances I will encounter in a particular week.
For a longer history, we would need to analyze my baby teeth, which I don't have. They would show signs of early exposure to toxic substances such as lead and pesticides.
As I started searching for tests, I also found Leonardo Trasande, a doctor at New York University who helped a reporter with a similar experiment years ago. I'm unfortunately telling me that a lot hasn't changed since then.
Trasande suggests starting with four categories: phthalates, biscuits, polybrominated diphenyl ethers (flame resistors) and organophosphate pesticides.
Apart from combining products and food, many of these chemicals go into the air, water and soil where they are produced and used.
I tick through my everyday life and hypothesise that I probably have moderate levels of each of the four categories.
How much do we want to know?
According to Wright, the key expert, people educated about risks can reduce their toxic burdens, and this makes me feel that my personal research is worthwhile.
However, Paolo Vineis, chair of environmental epidemiology at Imperial College in London, tells me that I should consider the psychological impact of my effort. He says he is worried about a future where people often experience their exposures. “I'm not sure whether good mental health is worrying about pollution,” he said.
Andreas Kortenkamp, a researcher looking at the effects of mixtures of chemicals, says there are limitations on how much individuals can do. “We are asking for regulatory action from the government,” he said.
What all the experts agree, however, is that the best thing is to maintain a healthy lifestyle – be active, eat fruit and vegetables and never smoke.
I'm unsure how much I really want to know until I talk to Philippe Grandjean, Harvard's environmental pollution expert who shares his time between Copenhagen and Cambridge, Massachusetts.
His studies have made him an expert on lead, mercury and most recently, non-stick perforated chemicals, or PFAS, which most people have in their bodies.
“The lower you can be exposed, the better, and use your brain,” said Grandjean. There may be more dangers that we have not discovered “so we should try to limit our connection to all the chemicals effectively”, he adds.
Grandjean is also hyperaware. Scratching cheese has not melted off pizza boxes that have been chemically treated. It doesn't eat microwave popcorn in a bag.
If it can be careful, my figure, I can throw some fragrances and lotions out. But for months while I am learning about this invisible world, I try to keep my habits the same in order to experiment.
The wristband test
After a few weeks, Kim Anderson, who developed the wristband for chemical tests at Oregon State University told Wright by him, sends a thick plastic bag that can be re-sent with a Livestrong style bracelet.
For five days I don't take it away. It's orange bright and black, and I can't help but notice it constantly. When I wear cosmetics or clean a counter, I think it will show. When I take a deep breath, I think about the air quality of the day.
A photographer comes to record my daily life and we place my shower products on the edge of the bathtub. I feel overwhelmed: I don't know much about the ingredients in what I use.
A few weeks later, Wright and Mount Sinai volunteered for my testing for some of the chemicals that the experts I interviewed were important. I'm taking a train to New York City and traveling around the lab where my samples will be collected and their analysis. Expensive machinery whips around.
I'm going to the bone scanner – which exposes me to a small fraction of the radiation associated with an annual dental X-ray. I was born in 1989, the lead year was gradually removed from gasoline. So, if I were to come into contact, it probably came from old wall paint or drinking water pipes.
The full results of the lead test will take time to analyze, but Andrew Todd – who operated the machine on my leg – tells me that I am clear. “As you don't light up as a Christmas tree,” he said.
Leader is the only heavy metal we experience. The other tests we organized – after months of phone and video calls, emails and train journeys – focus on the types of chemicals most Americans encounter every day, which are t It's more worrying for me.
Review my products
With all my tests completed, I got home and started making some changes.
I conclude that my most dangerous products across my home, according to a database and app run by the Environmental Working Group, is a health advocacy group.
I keep some of my personal care products and makeup but throw others. I'm finding it hard to get a part of a low-scaled hair cream that I used since I was a teenager and a perfume that reminds me of my first years in Washington t DC. I remind myself that cosmetics, and especially perfumes, in the US are not largely regulated.
Friends who hear about the project ask whether I'm scared. But I'm glad to know that I'm making decisions that have been better taught.
Then the results are reached.
The test is derived from the wrist band
My wristband was analyzed for 1,530 chemicals. Twelve were found, and the 1,518 analysts were left below the detection limit.
I'm Google the 12, and they're sound scary, but I have no frame of reference. There is no database for Americans chemicals contact with. t from day to day.
Most on my list is perfume used in body care products and cleaning supplies. Many of them are phthalates, the plasticisers used in food packaging and cosmetics. One is flame retardant.
Olga Naidenko, a senior scientist at the Environmental Working Group, goes through the list with me. It states that phthalates can imitate hormones, affect the endocrine system and damage fetal developing. She adds that the flame retardation – TPP – is used in some nail polishes and our other endocrine suspect is suspected.
The role of endocrine is important for a healthy body. Endocrine disruptors can turn or define signals carried by hormones. They are associated with developmental, neural, immunity and reproductive problems.
Naidenko reminds me that research cannot yet tell us the cumulative exposure effects to multiple chemicals at the same time.
“In the opinion of EWG, this question should have been answered by manufacturers of chemicals and products before the chemicals were released on the market,” he said. “In the meantime, EWG recommends avoiding potential sources of exposure to endocrine disrupting chemicals in everyday products.” T
This, he says, will “ask for some detective work… as ingredients are not usually listed on consumer products”.
At first I don't pursue that detective work aggressively – I'm busy and I've been living like this without big problems for years, okay? But I see that I can't help myself. Within a month I decided to start skipping feet and painting my nails at home or not at all.
Results from the rest of my tests
When Mount Sinai completes my laboratory tests, Wright will not send them to me until we speak. We know I would go straight to Googling.
First we ask if I have a chronic illness or take medicines. I'm not, but I take two pills a day for minor issues. I work in front of a computer, but otherwise I 'm active and eating plenty of fruit and vegetables. I'm also intolerant of gluten, so I'm skipping a lot of foods processed.
Wright tells me that I have at least 36 chemicals in my body – phthalates, flame retardants and pesticides, as well as some phenols used in plastics and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons from air pollution.
I also have a metabolite of cigarette smoke, from the name cotinine. I am not a smoker and I am rarely around smokers, but I briefly visited relatives who smoked two weeks before my test.
It's amazing to me that this could appear in my results.
“There is no such thing as a normal level for anyone from these chemicals,” says Wright.
But compared to the CDC's data, it is quite common for a person living in a city.
Two of my phthalate levels are two or three times higher than the American average. That's the chemicals found in my soap and fancy shampoos. But they are also the plastic medicine capsules that we swallow every day. And they're in packed lunches – like the plastic sheets wrapping American cheese. They are associated with obesity and reproductive problems, especially for men.
“Those things aren't all causal directly, they're risk factors,” Wright explained.
Even average levels are not necessarily healthy.
Trasande says he would have compared my numbers with the ranges of levels – rather than the averages – present in Americans. It says that outcomes like mine are "linked to a host of health outcomes that can develop in people who have no clinical symptoms of any disease or burden". My advice is to avoid the exposures I can make.
But Wright says, as I have no illness – like type 2 diabetes – no exceptional measures would be advised to limit my phthalates.
“My bet is more in tune than most people and you probably have a lower risk,” Wright says. It says that taking your health seriously, t “More than anything else, it will help us no matter what you've been exposed to, and whatever your DNA.”
On the basis of one result, my high polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, I decided to get a big fan and open the window when I cook over my stove.
My kitchen has not evacuated. It's not clear whether the air pollution that my laboratories show comes from cars in a traffic jam or smoke inside my home.
“I think the important message is that we don't think all the chemicals should be banned,” says Wright. “Chemicals have positive uses. We need to be aware of what is in it [products] and then make informed choices. ”