Study Shows Infants Exposed to Hundreds of Harmful Chemicals before Birth

A new study has found up to 232 industrial chemicals in the umbilical cord blood of infants born in 2007 and 2008. The identified chemicals include known carcinogens, neurotoxins, endocrine disruptors, and numerous other compounds toxic to various organs and systems. The study, commissioned by the Environmental Working Group (EWG) and Rachel's Network, reveals the extent of exposure to harmful substances faced by pregnant mothers and underscores the need to create public policies to prevent future exposures.

The report is the 11th biomonitoring investigation commissioned by EWG, which overall have identified up to 486 chemicals, pollutants, and pesticides in 186 people of all ages. Biomonitoring is the direct measurement of people's exposure to toxic substances in the environment by measuring the substances or their metabolites in human specimens, such as blood or urine. Biomonitoring measurements indicate the amount of the chemical that actually gets into people from all environmental sources combined.

The research analyzed the contents of the umbilical cord blood of ten infants from racial or ethnic minorities born in the United States in 2007 and 2008. Fetuses and infants are most vulnerable to negative health impacts from chemical exposure. Five independent research labs in three countries tested for chemicals that are commonly found in American households. Little is known about how the chemicals in this mix interact with one another or what their combined health impacts might be.

Among the harmful substances identified in the cord blood, researchers reported for the first time ever the presence of 21 contaminants in American infants, including bisphenol A (BPA), a synthetic hormone found in numerous plastic products such as baby bottles, metal food cans, and cell phone cases, and eight previously undetected polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), which were banned in the late 1970s but are still ubiquitous in the environment.

A relatively new scientific field of study, biomonitoring is a major tool in advancing the public's right to know. Individuals have a right to know what industrial chemicals are contaminating their bodies and what harm those chemicals pose to their health. Biomonitoring helps to fill some of the numerous gaps in the data regarding chemical exposures and the potential for adverse health effects.

Biomonitoring studies, such as the EWG report, can help improve public health policy by identifying trends in chemical exposures, identifying disproportionately affected and particularly vulnerable communities, assessing the effectiveness of current regulations, and setting priorities for legislative and regulatory action. These biomonitoring studies clearly indicate that more needs to be done to protect public health.

However, companies that manufacture or use harmful chemicals have opposed efforts to use biomonitoring. When California state legislators introduced a proposal to create a biomonitoring plan for their state, businesses fought the measure, labeling it a "job killer." The industry claims that expanding the public's knowledge would create unwarranted fear and excessive regulation. After winning several amendments to the measure, some industry groups dropped their opposition and, in 2006, California's biomonitoring program went into effect. The state's first reports are due in 2010.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) acknowledges that the presence of a chemical in the body does not mean the chemical will cause a problem. However, without the basic exposure data provided by biomonitoring, there is no way to understand what health impacts may result. Exceptionally little is known about the impact of chemicals on developing fetuses and infants and the effects of interactions among numerous combinations of chemicals.

Rather than sowing fear, biomonitoring advocates hold that such information is empowering to citizens, as information about releases of toxic pollution under the Toxics Release Inventory (TRI) has empowered communities to press for reductions. By combining the pollution data from sources such as TRI with local biomonitoring data and information about health trends, a fuller picture of the impacts of chemical exposure emerges. Communities can use the information to hold polluters and public officials accountable and demand actions needed to reduce their exposure to toxics.

The CDC operates a national biomonitoring program that has produced three assessments of the U.S. population's exposure to chemicals. The program's third report was released in 2005 and identified 148 industrial chemicals in the population. A fourth report from CDC is due later in December.

Biomonitoring programs in other countries have had a big impact on public health. Data from a breast milk monitoring program in Sweden first alerted the world to widespread exposure to the toxic flame retardants known as PBDEs after researchers watched levels rise exponentially in nursing mothers in the 1990s. In the 1970s and 1980s, biomonitoring showed a drop in blood lead levels as lead in gasoline was phased out for reasons apart from public health concerns about the heavy metal. This information helped speed the phase-out of lead as an additive in gasoline and other products.

Despite the research undertaken by the CDC and private groups like EWG, there is still much that is unknown about the public's exposure to harmful industrial chemicals and what health effects the chemicals are causing. The ubiquitous presence of industrial carcinogens and endocrine disruptors among the most vulnerable populations – fetuses and infants – raises serious questions about the effectiveness of current chemical policies.

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