Skip to main content

Our doctors and nurses carry as many harmful chemicals in their bodies as the rest of us.  You might think that, being trained in chemistry and medicine (as most of us are not) and therefore perhaps more careful, not to mention highly-educated and relatively affluent, health care professionals would have found ways to avoid toxics.  But they are in fact exposed to the same kinds of chemicals and hazards as workers in blue collar industries.

A report published today by three nonprofit health-related organizations, “Toxic Chemicals Found in Doctors and Nurses,” is the first examination of the ‘body burden’ of 20 members of the medical profession.  Every one of them carried toxic chemicals, every one carried 18 of the same chemicals, and each participant bore a burden of at least 24 individual chemicals of the 62 chemicals for which labs ran their analysis.  That adds up to major chemical pollution with major potential for harm.

The bottom line from this study for all of us is, that we cannot shop or sanitize our way out of this problem.  We need a shift in the way chemicals are made and sold and used.

The chemicals found in every one of these doctors and nurses include four that EPA is now considers top priority: bisphenol A (used to make rigid plastic polycarbonates), mercury, PFCs (for stain-resistant coatings), and phthalates (used in PVC plastics and cosmetics).  Almost every participant also carried signs of flame retardants and the antimicrobial chemical triclosan, two other highly-suspect chemicals.  One and all, these are endocrine disruptors, meaning they harm our hormonal systems. They can trigger reproductive problems, from testicular and breast cancer to lowered fertility, as well as altered brain development, and cancer, and they are linked to problems with our metabolism, such as obesity, high cholesterol, and diabetes.

These illnesses have uniformly, steadily and sharply increased over the past few decades, in keeping with the steady upward production and use of chemicals.

Doctors and nurses run into these chemicals not only on the job but, like the rest of us, everywhere else in our daily lives.  BPA lurks in water cooler bottles in hospital and office halls alike.  Mercury is an ingredient in blood pressure gauges and thermometers, as well as in the flu vaccine and the smoke from coal-fired power plants.  The plastic of IV bags and tubing contains phthalates as does hairspray and cosmetics.  Flame retardants are used in electronic medical equipment but also in our sofas and computer casings.  Triclosan may be the prime ingredient in hospital hand sterilizers but it’s also manufactured into some socks, deodorants, and toothpastes.

“These chemicals are persistent – they last for a long time in the environment; they bioaccumulate up the food chain, and they are toxic,” says Kristen Welker-Hood, explaining the basic dangers these chemicals pose.  Kristen, a registered nurse, who is director of the Environment and Health Programs for Physicians for Social Responsibility and the co-principal of this study, further points out that endocrine-disrupting chemicals do their damage at low levels.  “They dispel the old-fashioned notion that ‘dose makes the poison,’ that a chemical is dangerous only at high levels.”

This invasive pollution poses a special problem for one of the doctors who was pregnant during the testing.  The chemicals she carries will pass right through the placenta and enter the child in her womb whose defenseless developing body can be much more readily harmed.

This study mirrors the findings of other body burden studies.  The Centers for Disease Control measures the chemical traces in Americans from age 6 on up every year.  In 2004, the Environmental Working Group’s study of umbilical cord blood from 10 babies born in August and September of 2004 uncovered an average of 200 industrial chemicals and pollutants in each newborn.  Corporations have even examined whether the chemicals they produce show up in local residents; they do.  One and all, not one unpolluted body has been found.

Like these others, this study of doctors and nurses underscores the massive inadequacies in the way chemicals have been allowed to invade our lives for decades.  The Toxic Substance Control Act (TSCA) was weak when it was passed in 1976 and even exempted the 62,000 chemicals in use at that date from any testing even though they constitute the vast bulk of the chemicals we use.  For newly-introduced chemicals, the manufacturer does the testing, simply to ‘register’ the chemical, but is under no obligation to study the chemical’s effects on people or the environment.  They just tell EPA the chemical structure and an estimate of production volume, a number they’re allowed to change later.

It’s time to change the law.  That’s just what is underway in Congress through the Kid-Safe Chemicals Act, a piece of legislation raised and buried on Capitol Hill year after year, until now when there’s strong enthusiasm from the new Administration, from some Congressional leaders, and very much from nonprofit organizations advocating for environmental health. 

The American Nurses Association and Health Care Without Harm partnered with Physicians for Social Responsibility to sponsor this study.  For a copy, go to
What this means for you:

Help convince your congressperson to support the Kid-Safe Chemicals Act, contact Safer Chemicals Healthy Families is a coalition of environmental health advocates working on federal chemicals reform and take action to notify your legislators.
If you have a doctor or other health care professional who seems blase' about toxic chemicals, you might give them a copy of this study.


Alice Shabecoff is co-author with her husband Philip of Poisoned Profits: The Toxic Assault on our Children. See

The views and opinions expressed in this post are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect those of strongly encourages our readers to post comments in response to blog posts. We value diversity of opinions and perspectives. Our goals for this space are to be educational, thought-provoking, and respectful. So we actively moderate comments and we reserve the right to edit or remove comments that undermine these goals. Thanks!