State Sen. Alan Bates may pay a little more attention the next time talk of mercury pollution surfaces at the Oregon Legislature.

State Sen. Alan Bates may pay a little more attention the next time talk of mercury pollution surfaces at the Oregon Legislature.

The Ashland Democrat had the highest blood level of mercury among 10 volunteers in a project designed to sample how many common pollutants have accumulated in the bodies of Oregonians. Bates also had a relatively high amount of chemicals known as phthalates that are found in plastic products and personal care items such as shampoo and deodorant.

"It's surprising how much of that stuff we have in us," Bates said Monday. "We don't know how much is dangerous and how much isn't."

The Portland-based Oregon Environmental Council's "Pollution in People" study, released Monday, showed that Oregonians carry many of the same chemicals in their bodies as people who live in other parts of the United States. Renee Hackenmiller-Paradis, who wrote the report, said the level of contaminants in the 10 Oregonians was generally in line with the results of tests conducted on residents of Washington state and Maine, suggesting Oregon is no cleaner or pollution-free than other regions of the country.

Hackenmiller-Paradis stressed that the study did not include a large enough cross section of people to make generalizations about Oregonians, but it did show that everyone carries some pollutants.

"It's a snapshot," she said. "Folks have accumulated these things in our bodies. It makes you wonder, 'What about me?' "

The OEC commissioned the study to educate Oregonians about the level of contaminants they carry, said Jeremy Graybill, communications director.

"There's not a whole lot of information available to the average consumer to make them aware of the dangers of these products," Graybill said.

Bates and the other volunteers provided blood and urine samples that were analyzed for 29 substances, such as pesticides; mercury, which is known to damage the central nervous system; PCBs, which were banned in the 1970s after they were associated with health problems; and perfluorinated chemicals, which are used as stain protectors.

Every volunteer had a measurable amount of at least nine of the chemicals, and one had 16. Along with the highest level of mercury, Bates had the second highest level of phthalates, plasticizing chemicals that are widely used in plastic toys, food containers and vinyl products such as shower curtains.

Hackenmiller-Paradis said scientists are concerned about the possible long-term health effects of phthalates and bisphenol A, which is used in the production of reusable water bottles, baby bottles and other hard plastics. Both substances are endocrine disrupters, which have been shown to interfere with hormone function. Some studies have suggested a link between the presence of such chemicals in lakes and streams to fewer numbers of male fish.

Studies like the OEC's are often discounted by the chemical industry because they involve a small number of people and cannot identify the source of the chemicals. All of the chemicals found in the volunteers fell below safety levels set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Hackenmiller-Paradis said the EPA standards don't necessarily reflect the real health risks such chemicals could present. She said the "safe" level for lead kept going down as researchers discovered its effects on small children.

She said it's impossible to avoid exposure to many of the substances in the study in modern life, but people can reduce their exposure to many of them by changing some habits.

Eating less tuna, for example, can help reduce mercury intake, and avoiding personal care products that use phthalates can lessen exposure to them. Hackenmiller-Paradis recommended avoiding Teflon-coated cookware and plastics as much as possible, and eating organic foods.

The report also calls for phasing out the most harmful chemicals and investing in technology that will produce safer alternatives.

Reach reporter Bill Kettler at 776-4492 or e-mail