Flesh and bone (plus mercury, DDT, lead...)

JOCASTA SHAKESPEARE thought she was careful about her food. Then she was tested for pesticides

I am looking at a column of figures and percentages handwritten by a laboratory technician. They signify the levels of hazardous pesticides and toxic metals in my blood, picked up mainly from food. They read like a forensic scientist's diagnosis in a murder mystery. I have no idea what they mean but I do know that I was not expecting this cocktail of poisons: lindane, DDT, HCB, DNOC, pentachlorophenol, PCBs, lead, mercury, cadmium, aluminium. I have had my blood tested at the Biolab. Footnotes relating ringed figures to bald statements such as "also oestrogenic" or "half- lives of many years" don't help.

I decided to have myself tested to find out what pesticides and toxic metals my body contains. Food scares, official reassurances and research statistics all mean very little on an individual basis. I wanted to know what effect living now is having on me, personally. I am not a purist about food - I won't touch a hamburger, but nor do I always eat organic. I used to think that lots of fresh fruit, salad and fish make up a healthy diet. I drink tap water and exercise about once a week. I am not overweight nor underweight. I'm not in occupational contact with toxins.

Government advice is that the hazardous pesticides most of us eat, and which were recently found exceeding accepted levels in 29 samples of supermarket fruits and vegetables, are "not harmful". But I have just discovered that I have 3.1 micrograms per litre of lindane in my blood and research shows that lindane is an extremely dangerous pesticide that disrupts hormones and is linked to breast cancer. It is banned for this reason in Israel, Denmark, Sweden and France, but not in the UK. Lindane is just one of the pesticides found in excessive residue levels in certain foods such as lettuce and chocolate.

Some of the substances on my chart, such as DDT and lead, have been banned but are obviously still in circulation. Worryingly, a Biolab footnote points out that lindane, DDT, HCB and PCBs are all endocrine-disrupting chemicals which interfere with the hormone system. Friends of the Earth says that EDCs cause reproductive disorders, cancer and impaired development in mammals, birds, amphibians and fish. They have been linked to declining sperm count, testicular cancer and breast cancer. Well, I wasn't worried before but I am now.

The figures I received from the test represent just the tip of my iceberg: Dr McLaren Howard at the Biolab says that there are many poisons stored in fat which do not appear in blood tests and many toxic chemicals not detectable by the gas-liquid chromatography process. He adds that although lindane appears in only 10 per cent of his clients' blood serum, DDT and PCBs appear in all the samples his lab has tested.

Anyone can be tested at the Biolab. All you need is a referral from your GP and pounds 108. But most of the people paying for a "cosh assessment" are those who work directly with pesticides, such as agricultural food producers.

In a building in Weymouth Street, London, business was brisk as Melita, an Austrian nurse, rested my arms on a pillow and arranged her syringes. "Lovely veins," she said. She extracted two phials of blood and I thought it was over.

But when I picked up the results from my GP 10 days later, I realised that the whole process had only just begun. Dr Vicky Ocaria studied the figures, smiled and said that she too would be interested to know the meaning of these results.

Brandishing proof of my personal poisons, I returned to Professor Ian Shaw, toxicologist and chairman of the working party that conducted a Government report on pesticide residues in supermarket foods, which he said were "nothing to worry about". Now I ask if he would be happy to discover, as I have, a toxic cocktail including a lindane level of 3.1 micrograms per litre in the blood? "No, I wouldn't be happy. Lindane is oestrogenic. We wouldn't want any of these substances in our bodies, ideally, and we don't know the long-term combined effects of pesticides. But the links of lindane to breast cancer are unproven."

This still doesn't answer my question: whether a level of 3.1 micrograms per litre of lindane is harmful to me. "I haven't got a clue," says Professor Ian Shaw. "There are no safe limits. We don't really know what these levels mean." But if there are no safe limits, then why are toxic chemicals in food nothing to worry about?

In search of clarification, I spoke to Matthew Lumby of the Health and Safety Executive. "Have you been doing something you shouldn't?" he asks when I tell him about my 3.1 micrograms per litre of lindane. He says the HSE deals mainly with people working with pesticides as an occupational hazard and fixes on 10 micrograms per litre of lindane as a dangerous level of toxicity. My reading would therefore be comparatively low.

But Andrew Watterson, director for the Centre of Occupational and Environmental Health at De Montfort University, says, "It is higher than the average in other European countries. This is not satisfactory. These sort of levels should not be found. No one knows what the effects of long-term low-level exposure might be."

He adds that because all the poisons have appeared in my blood, before they are stored away out of circulation in the fat, this suggests recent exposure, probably from food. "The worry is that they are accumulative. And lindane could also cause anaemias."

Pete Riley of Friends of the Earth says no one knows what the combined effects of these chemicals might be. He sounds surprised when I tell him about my 3.1 mg/litre lindane reading. "That's per litre, so that's a body count of about 12.5 micrograms of an endocrine-disrupting chemical. Hormones operate at measurements that are way below that. Changes could take many years to materialise." In fact, if we add up the "body count" of all four EDCs, I calculate roughly 25 micrograms of hormone-disrupting carcinogens circulating in my blood. That sounds like a lot to me. But any would be too much.

Pete is impressed by my pentachlorophenol reading. "It is an organochlorine banned in the food chain, but still used as a wood preservative." I haven't been using wood preservative and have no idea where this has come from. As for the lead, mercury, cadmium and aluminium, they all appear at levels below that which is considered abnormally high or toxic. But I didn't ask for them. And yet there they are, coursing around in my blood, against my will.

But I am not the only one: I probably passed all these toxins to my 10- month-old son when I was breastfeeding. Elizabeth Salter of the World Wildlife Fund says, "The foetus is most vulnerable to endocrine-disrupting pesticides, but toxins will also be passed on in breast milk." The 55 per cent increase in testicular cancer in England and Wales from 1979 to 1991 has been attributed to hormone-disrupting chemicals in the womb. But experts still advise that breast milk is best for babies.

Although the Brakspear hospital recommends to me a regime of niacin, vitamin C, folic acid, low-heat saunas and breathing oxygen to cleanse the body of pesticides, there is very little I can do about my personal "cosh assessment".

If the toxic chemicals in food and domestic products were labelled, I might have the choice of whether or not to indulge. Meanwhile, the traders at my local market laugh as I hesitate over the Dutch pears: "We'd all be dead by now if you believed everything they say."

YOU ARE WHAT YOU EAT: HOW TO CUT DOWN ON CHEMICAL NASTIES

For a totally pesticide-free body, you must eat organic everything, all of the time. While this is increasingly possible, it is still not easy and can be expensive. Try buying locally, direct from the producer - that way even if the produce is not organic you can ask what chemicals have been used. Wash fruit and vegetables and peel them for children - residues concentrate in skin - but remember, this won't eliminate all chemicals. Some foods are potentially more harmful than others, so if you have to be selective target organic versions of:

5 Lettuce, which may typically contain 13 chemical substances. These saturate the leaves and will not all be removed by washing.

5 Pears - some Dutch produce has been found to contain chlormequat, a growth agent.

5 Apples, which Friends of the Earth recently found to contain an average of five pesticides.

5 Chocolate - sorry, guys, but a lot of it contains lindane, a hormone- destroying pesticide.

Friends of the Earth has produced a questionnaire you can send to your supermarket to find out what chemicals its produce contains (tel: 0171 490 1555). While you're writing, lobby it to eliminate all pesticide residues.

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