The first article I wrote for ISHN, back in 1991, was about biomonitoring — detecting chemicals within the body. It was predicted that a tipping point would someday occur when biomonitoring became more important than traditional sampling for chemicals in environmental media such as air, water or soil.

That tipping point has occurred. Advancements in science and technology are the main reasons. Today it’s possible to detect, with great speed and accuracy, trace quantities of almost any chemical within human tissues. A prime example is monitoring for lead in blood. Since 1979 workers exposed to airborne lead above OSHA’s action level are required to periodically have a health professional draw a vial of their blood from a vein. This sample had to be sent to one of a relatively few laboratories qualified by OSHA and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to measure for lead, which would require several days for results.

In September 2006, the Food and Drug Administration announced the availability of the first FDA-approved portable lead test system for use outside a clinical laboratory ( The new LeadCare® II blood-lead testing instrument, which is not much larger than and similar in appearance to glucose monitors used by diabetics at home, requires just two drops of blood from a finger prick and produces results in three minutes. FDA studies found that 98 percent of the values measured by the instrument were within OSHA’s specifications for blood-lead proficiency testing.

Approval of this new test will permit more than 115,000 non-traditional laboratory sites such healthcare clinics, mobile health units, schools, and work sites to begin measuring people for lead exposure, according to FDA. Do you think this will make your job easier? Probably not. As more people discover they have lead in their body, someone is going to have to track down where the exposure came from.

Home tests

Testing for chemicals is much easier today than ever before — allowing almost anyone to become involved in biomonitoring. Two Texas mothers recently formed a company called Milkscreen Inc.

( to market their product to detect alcohol (ethanol) in breast milk, according to The Wall Street Journal. The idea is that women want to know when it’s safe to resume breastfeeding their infants following consumption of alcohol. Milkscreen’s kit of six white colorimetric test strips sells for about $20. When dipped in breast milk each strip will detect ethanol as low as 0.05 milligrams per deciliter in about two minutes.

So what happens when breastfeeding mothers realize they can use this technology not only to find ethanol in breast milk after consuming alcohol, but to determine if they are absorbing chemicals into their body from sources such as work?

It may not take Milkscreen Inc. long to market test strips for methanol, butanol, propanol and other common industrial solvents. Are you ready to explain the difference between airborne limits permitted by OSHA and the amount of a chemical actually found in a person’s body?


The potential growth of biomonitoring is influenced more by politics than by advancements in science and technology:
  • Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), now Speaker of the House, is a long-time proponent of biomonitoring for chemical exposures to help address health concerns. It should not come as a surprise that her hometown of San Francisco passed a new ordinance (120-06), effective December 1, 2006, on Child Product Safety. It amends the city’s health code by prohibiting the manufacture, sale, or distribution of any toy or article that may be used by a child under three years of age if that product contains greater than 0.1 percent of DEHP, DBP, or BBP.
  • Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-NY), rumored to be her party’s front runner for the 2008 presidential elections, also is a strong advocate of biomonitoring. She has teamed with Pelosi in the past in drafting biomonitoring legislation. Clinton’s appointment as chair of the powerful Subcommittee on Superfund and Environmental Health positions her to greatly influence new and expanded biomonitoring legislation.
  • In September 2006, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger (R-CA) signed into law SB 1379, making California the first state to establish a biomonitoring program for its citizens. He had vetoed similar legislation in 2005. In addition to the biomonitoring law, Schwarzenegger, also signed into law AB 289 that authorizes state agencies to require chemical manufacturers to turn over test methods for their chemicals to help support the state’s new biomonitoring legislation. Both SB 1379 and AB 289 took effect January 1, 2007.
California is more than just a bellwether of what type of environmental legislation may be introduced or pass in other states or at the federal level. According to the CIA’s World Factbook, if California were an independent nation, it would be the tenth largest economy in the world. Environmental legislation in California reverberates across the U.S. An example is California’s Proposition 65 — disclosure of chemicals in products known to cause cancer or birth defects, which most EHS pros are familiar with, regardless of what state they reside in. Combine powerful political proponents such as the three above with technological innovations and explosive growth in biomonitoring is inevitable. EHS pros need to keep pace with this technology.