Dozens of ‘mystery chemicals’ never reported before discovered inside people

SAN FRANCISCO, Calif. — If 2020 didn’t make people paranoid enough when it comes to their health, a new report on the chemicals seeping into the human body may take the cake. Researchers from the University of California-San Francisco have uncovered over 100 different foreign chemicals inside of people. Even more unnerving, 55 of these substances have never been discovered in humans before.

“These chemicals have probably been in people for quite some time, but our technology is now helping us to identify more of them,” says Tracey J. Woodruff, PhD, a professor of obstetrics, gynecology and reproductive sciences at UCSF, in a university release.

Researchers say many of these chemicals come from common consumer products and industrial materials. However, the team calls 42 of these substances “mystery chemicals” whose sources are unknown at this time.

Study authors made the discovery through an examination of pregnant women and their babies. The findings reveal these chemicals are not only in the blood of the expecting mothers, but also in their newborns. This suggests that many chemicals can travel through the mother’s placenta before birth.

“It is alarming that we keep seeing certain chemicals travel from pregnant women to their children, which means these chemicals can be with us for generations,” Woodruff adds.

What products are these chemicals hiding in?

The study finds the chemicals making their way into people are coming from all sorts of common everyday items. Forty are an ingredient in plasticizers, 28 are found in cosmetics, and 25 come from consumer products. Another 29 chemicals are ingredients in pharmaceuticals and 23 reside in common pesticides.

The analysis also discovered three chemicals which are common in flame retardants. Previous studies have discovered that similar chemicals easily break away from electronic devices over time and contaminate their users. Other compounds discovered by the study are used in making carpeting, upholstery, and other appliances.

Among the 55 chemicals which scientists have never reported finding in humans before, one is a pesticide, two are PFASs, and 10 are plasticizer ingredients. Scientists had little to no information at all on 37 of these potentially harmful substances.

“It’s very concerning that we are unable to identify the uses or sources of so many of these chemicals,” Woodruff says. “EPA must do a better job of requiring the chemical industry to standardize its reporting of chemical compounds and uses. And they need to use their authority to ensure that we have adequate information to evaluate potential health harms and remove chemicals from the market that pose a risk.”

Are companies doing their part to keep people healthy?

Researchers used high-resolution mass spectrometry (HRMS) to identify the dozens of man-made chemicals in these women. Although scientists can make an initial identification of many of them, they can only confirm which substances are in people by comparing the chemicals to pure samples from the manufacturers. Scientists call these samples “analytical standards” but companies don’t always make their formulas publicly available.

The UCSF team says chemical manufacturer Solvay stopped providing analytical standards for one of their perfluorooctanoic acid (PFAS) compounds. The chemical is a replacement for older PFAS compounds manufacturers are phasing out. Without the analytical standard, researchers will have a harder time evaluating how toxic the new chemical is for humans.

“These new technologies are promising in enabling us to identify more chemicals in people, but our study findings also make clear that chemical manufacturers need to provide analytical standards so that we can confirm the presence of chemicals and evaluate their toxicity,” explains co-lead author Dimitri Panagopoulos Abrahamsson, PhD, a postdoctoral fellow with UCSF’s Program on Reproductive Health and the Environment (PRHE).

The study appears in the journal Environmental Science & Technology.

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