Household Toxins Reach Babies Before Birth

Household Toxins Reach Babies Before Birth

New research shows that chemicals from everyday products contaminate women's bodies, and that their children enter the world already exposed to known toxics.

Sphere| Andrew Schneider | It is one of the worst nightmares for a mother-to-be: She's poisoning the baby in her belly, and there is little she can do about it.

Now new research out Tuesday has put hard numbers to those fears, showing that chemicals from everyday products contaminate women's bodies, and that their children enter the world already exposed to known toxics.

Nine women from California, Oregon and Washington participated in the first-of-its-kind study and had blood and urine samples taken during their second trimester of pregnancy.

"Our tests measured levels of five chemical groups, including phthalates, mercury, perfluorinated compounds or bisphenol A, and the flame retardant tetrabromobisphenol A," said Erika Schreder, staff scientist for the Washington Toxics Coalition, one of the three West Coast environmental health organizations that conducted the study.

The results showed that even in the womb, children aren't safe from known toxics. The researchers found 13 toxic chemicals in the bio-fluids of the pregnant women. Their report showed that:

• Bisphenol A, used to make polycarbonate plastic and the lining for food cans, was found in the urine of each woman. An artificial estrogen, it has been shown to be harmful to fetal development. In adults, low-level exposure to BPA can cause decreased sperm production, early onset of puberty, chromosome damage in female ovaries, and a variety of behavioral changes.

• Every test subject had at least two and as many as four perfluorinated compounds in her blood. These "Teflon chemicals" are used to create stain-protection products and non-stick cookware and are classified as a likely human carcinogen; in tests on laboratory animals, they have been shown to cause liver, thyroid, pancreatic, testicular and mammary glad tumors.

• Mercury, known to harm brain development, was in the blood of every woman in the study.

• Breakdown products – phthalate monoesters – of at least four phthalates were in the urine of all nine women. Used as plasticizers and fragrance carriers in numerous consumer products, phthalates are linked to reproductive problems and asthma.

The report further noted that research has proven that toxic chemical exposure has been linked to serious health problems like asthma, childhood cancers, diabetes, infertility and learning disabilities. "Yet the degree to which children are exposed to toxic chemicals before they enter the world is still being discovered."

The Environmental Protection Agency and scientists at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have repeatedly shown that exposure to toxic chemicals before birth and during infancy have the most serious and irreversible consequences.

However, the report does not offer a correlation between the levels of the chemicals found in the mothers and any health problems their newborns were expected to encounter.

"We cannot say with certainty whether these particular babies were harmed by the toxic exposures in the womb," Schreder said in an interview late Monday. But "we do know that they were exposed during the very most vulnerable time in their lives to chemicals associated with cancer, learning disabilities and infertility."

Most of the mothers were stunned by the results of the testing.

"I was surprised. The levels were much higher than I expected them to be," said Alex Rosenstein, a Realtor from Issaquah, Wash. "And this is just from living what I consider to be a normal life."

Amy Ellings, a public health nutritionist from Olympia, said: "The government's role is to protect the public from hazards like these. The FDA should be much more active in keeping these persistent chemicals out of our food and packaging."

To that end, the groups that produced the report, echoing calls from other public health and environmental activists across the country, say that immediate steps must be taken to eliminate the use of persistent toxic chemicals -- those that build up in our bodies or are passed on to the next generation. They also want manufacturers to create consumer products using only chemicals fully tested for safety.

Congress has called for a full revamping of the Toxic Substances Control Act, the law that attempts to control the manufacturing of hazardous chemicals in this country. At recent House and Senate hearings on the EPA law, lawmakers heard testimony stating that out of 80,000 chemicals believed to be in use today, only 200 (including most of the compounds found in the pregnant women) had ever been comprehensively tested for health hazards.

For the West Coast researchers, their findings only underscore how little information the public has on toxic contamination before birth.

"Our study cannot answer these very important questions," Schreder said. "But it opens a window to view the serious threats faced before entering the world -- threats that could affect health and well-being for a lifetime."

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