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Chemicals in Our Bodies Can Predict How Rich or Poor We Are

A new study found that poor Americans are full of lead, while rich Americans are full of mercury.
August 1, 2013, 4:30pm
Oysters gratin photo via [cipher]/Flickr

As the gap between the rich and poor continues to grow in America, the lives of the rich and poor also resemble each other less and less—and the chemicals in our bodies are reflecting it.

A new study in Environmental International looked at the association between income level and the presence of 179 toxicants. It found that the Poverty Income Ratio was associated with 18 chemicals—with different toxins found in both the poor and the rich.


Individuals with higher socioeconomic status had higher levels of mercury and arsenic. I would’ve expected higher levels of silver poisoning from the spoons they’re born with in their mouths, but apparently argyria isn’t much of a problem these days.

Those of lower socioeconomic status had higher levels of lead, cadmium and three types of phthalates—compounds commonly found in plastics.

The reasons for these disparate chemical levels point to disparate lifestyles and environments.

 For those in higher socioeconomic status, the researchers link consuming shellfish and other seafood to the higher mercury and arsenic levels, and higher levels of benzophenone-3 to using sunscreen.

Meanwhile, lead and cadmium come into those of lower socioeconomic status via cigarette smoking and their jobs. As someone whose cheapest apartment was along a trucking route and adjacent to a coal-fired power plant, I asked if these factors could also be contributing to higher levels of lead.

“It is certainly possible,” offered Jessica Tyrrell, an associate research fellow at Exeter and co-author of the study, “but unfortunately we weren't able to look at that data within our study.”

Analysing the build of chemicals in people's bodies, via ECEHH.

By showing toxicants across the board, the study complicates “the standard environmental justice hypothesis, which states that lower socioeconomic status will lead to a greater prevalence of harmful elements in the body,” which will inform public health officials going forward. The types of chemicals found are important.

“In this case the environmental justice hypothesis is not sufficient,” Tyrrell said. “We shouldn't just worry about chemical build up in poorer individuals, but consider the entire population.”