Do you want to know your ‘body burden’?

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Publication Date: 
Mon, 2014-03-03

The First Nations Biomonitoring Initiative (FNBI), which started in January 2011, is a health survey designed for First Nations populations living on reserve, south of 60 degrees. The initiative measures levels of trace metals, PCBs and also BFRs, pesticides, PFOs, BPA and phthalates using the community-based model. The initiative carries out body burden testing for the same chemicals with testing protocols that are complimentary to the Canadian Health Measures Survey (CHMS). First Nations communities on reserves are not included in the Canadian Health Measures Survey, despite their history of exposures to heavy pollution and toxicity. The FNBI will provide a baseline of chemical body burdens on First Nations reserves, and the communities will retain control over all resulting data. The First Nations Biomonitoring Initiative provides an information package to all participants to help them understand the results of their tests and individuals found to have an unusually high level of a chemical will be informed so that they can seek appropriate medical attention.

The results of community-based participatory research biomonitoring studies must be carefully disseminated and used to avoid potential adverse effects to communities and individuals who may be stigmatized as being “at risk” as a result of high chemical body burdens. Pitfalls can be avoided through appropriate study protocols and communication strategies developed together with the communities involved.

‘Advocacy biomonitoring’

The terms “data judo” or “advocacy biomonitoring” are used to describe a strategy in which study design and the communication of individual results are shaped primarily by policy goals to improve chemical regulation. This framework assumes that reporting results can boost public support for increased regulation of toxic chemicals and motivate individuals to engage in collective activism.

Participants in a California biomonitoring study examining indoor pollution used their individual data and aggregate results in testimony opposing a neighbouring oil refinery. Newer biomonitoring studies that report individual results as part of community-researcher partnerships emphasize participants’ right to know and right to act, and in some cases highly visible results reporting is central to activist strategies to stimulate policy change.

Biomonitoring can expose how your home is not a “refuge,” but “a dumpsite for the excesses of industrial capitalism” according to the authors of Through the Kitchen Window: The Politics of Home and Family. Participants in a household exposure study in California initially perceived their homes to be a safe haven, an assumption that biomonitoring disproved. This inspired many study participants to want to use their results to pressure government officials for more stringent regulation of toxics. The participants decided to take action by “writing to the city council, speaking at hearings, and supporting the passage of regulation, among others.” Sharyle Patton, from the environmental advocacy group Commonweal, argues that biomonitoring can be used to promote activism. Drawing on personal stories of individuals who have had their chemical body burdens tested, she described how migrant farm workers in California had developed a strong activist community as a result of biomonitoring. She described the tremendous impact of first person accounts when campaigning for greater regulation of chemical exposures.

Researchers at Brown University in the United States found that biomonitoring can demonstrate the ineffectiveness of individual changes in consumption patterns. Some of the study participants who changed their consumption patterns and yet saw no change in their chemical body burdens reported a desire to get involved in regional environmental health advocacy. The visible failure of consumption changes may help mobilize collective action. Body burden testing can demonstrate how shopping does not make us safe and how more sweeping regulatory changes are required that go beyond individual consumer choice.

Biomonitoring has limitations, since it can be difficult to identify the primary source of exposures and it is rarely possible to predict health outcomes based on chemical body burdens. However, respect for participants in research provides a strong impetus to report biomonitoring results. Research demonstrates that biomonitoring participants appreciate getting these results, and they are not necessarily alarmed or fearful about finding out about chemical exposures in their bodies. In fact, participants are often highly motivated to engage in collective environmental advocacy. Receiving biomonitoring results can be an important tool in campaigns to improve regulation of toxic chemicals.


Dolon Chakravartty is a PhD candidate at the University of Toronto in Public Health and collaborative program in Environment and Health.  She is also a team member on a CIHR team grant on Brominated Flame Retardants and Phthalates.

Robyn Lee has a PhD from York University in Social and Political Thought and is a team member of CIHR team grants on Brominated Flame Retardants and Phthalates.