Many Canadians are being contaminated with heavy metals, pesticides and other toxic chemicals, suggests a study by an environmental watchdog group.

Environmental Defence tested the blood and urine samples of 11 men and women volunteers, including wildlife artist Robert Bateman. A total of 88 chemicals, including PCBs, flame retardants and insecticides, were found.

Lab tests showed a total of 60 chemicals, with an average of 44 found in each volunteer, some in trace amounts.

The contaminants include suspected carcinogens and chemicals that may cause reproductive disorders, harm the development of children, disrupt hormone systems or are associated with respiratory illnesses.

A spokesperson for Health Canada said the department will look into claims made in the study, noting a sample of 11 people is too small to produce statistically significant results.

Such body-burden studies have been conducted in Europe and the United States, but little is known about pollution levels in Canadians. The tests included in Environmental Defence 's study cost $1,545 per volunteer, the report said.

Volunteers were selected to be representative of the Canadian population. They were asked about their diet and lifestyle as part of the report.

Contaminants included polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs), persistent chemicals used as fire retardants that are suspected hormone disruptors , and perfluorinated chemicals (PFOs) used in stain repellents, non-stick cookware and food packaging.

The European Union as well as California and Maine plan to ban certain types of PBDEs by 2006 as a precautionary approach, until more is known about the health effects. In 2004, Canada took a precautionary approach and banned three PFOs for two years.

"Canadians expect their country to be a leader in environmental protection and in protection for human health," said Rick Smith, executive director of Environmental Defence . "The reality is that Canada is lagging behind Europe and the United States when it comes to regulating pollution and reducing the number of toxic chemicals in our environment."

Tests found 48 chemicals in samples from Bateman, described in the report as a naturalist who says 80 per cent of his omnivore diet is organic. The artist is exposed to chemicals in paints.

David Masty, chief of the Whapmagoostui First Nation in northern Quebec, showed 51 chemicals, including the highest levels of mercury and persistent organic pollutants. POPs can concentrate in the north.

Body burden

The testing indicated blood and urine from Merrell-Ann Phare , a Winnipeg lawyer, contained 39 of the 88 harmful chemicals examined.

"I can look at one individually and say, 'Oh, that one's not too bad or that one's not so high.' But when I look at the whole list of all the things that are in my body, I wonder how they relate to one another," said Phare.

"What does it mean when I have high levels of malathion, plus PCBs , plus heavy metals? I think that's one of the concerns is: how do you know how things interact, and when levels are being set for what's safe in Canada, do they take all those issues into account?"

Older volunteers showed higher levels of PCBs than younger people. The chemicals were banned in Canada in 1977.

The group suggests Canadians can reduce their exposure by making small changes in their lifestyle and purchasing habits, such as not using pesticides and avoiding cosmetics and toiletries with synthetic fragrances.

Smith called on the federal government to:

  • Eliminate the use of toxic chemicals.
  • Make industry accountable for chemicals it produces.
  • Regulate chemicals in consumer products through the Canadian Environmental Protection Act.
  • Focus on reducing pollution in the Great Lakes basin.