Raising a Baby in an Era of Toxins
Your environment - and what you can do about it
Francesca Lyman, MSNBC News
Scientists are uncovering disturbing evidence that developing fetuses and infants may be highly vulnerable to certain synthetic chemicals widespread in the environment even at low levels. The toxicology is still evolving, but expectant parents and couples trying to conceive can take steps to protect their children, according to recent public health reports. But preparing for a vigilant parenthood may be more complicated than ever.
It's a scene from the cartoon Close to Home, with an expectant couple reading a self-help book on in utero discipline. Dad yells at their unborn child through a homemade microphone that seems to speak directly to the womb. No throwing food ever!
In real life, when anxious parents peer at sonograms checking their childrens development in utero, they have little control over the outcome; they just hope to protect their baby from some unfortunate genetic roll of the ice.
Each newborn infant, however, is vulnerable to hundreds of potentially development-altering toxins from persistent heavy metals that can find their way into mothers fish dinner to chemicals in car exhaust and dry cleaning even before coming into this world. The old worries used to be keeping babies safe from chemicals believed to cause cancer. Now researchers are intensifying their search for some of the subtler health effects of a wide variety of synthetic chemicals believed to produce neurotoxicity, immune-system disorders and reproductive and other developmental injuries.
For many decades, weve been cancer-phobic, says Daniel Sheehan, a researcher with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. But now were seeing that chemicals suspected of causing cancer are producing reproductive and developmental effects. And this is causing us to overhaul some of our basic assumptions.
Scientists have assumed they could test one chemical at a time on animals and, from that, set a safe level of exposure in humans. But studies of human populations are turning up new areas of vulnerability, as well as a major weakness: that no experiments take into account synergistic properties of different chemicals. "
A growing number of scientists believe that hundreds of widely used man-made chemicals, including pesticides, industrial compounds, ingredients of plastics and detergents, may be mimicking estrogen or blocking testosterone, damaging the endocrine system that is critical to sexual development. Some suspect links between endocrine-disrupting chemical (EDC) exposures and the increasing rates of breast cancer, prostate cancer and testicular cancer.
Scientists are also uncovering evidence that humans can be vulnerable at much lower doses of exposure to chemicals and that the timing of the dose may be as critical as the size of the dose. Take dioxin, a byproduct of many industrial processes such as paper making and waste incineration, to which many people are routinely exposed. University of Wisconsin researchers found that only a huge dose of dioxin would damage the reproductive system of adult rats. At the same time, though, they found that one single, tiny dose of dioxin given to pregnant rats on the 15th day of gestation a critical point for determining the sex of the animal reduced the animals sperm count and affected the sexual behavior of its male offspring.
How far we can extrapolate to human beings is of course whats controversial now, says FDAs Sheehan.
THE MORE THEY LOOK...
Solomon points, for example, to recent studies showing that mothers exposed to polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) chemicals, once found in electrical transformers, that are now banned are more likely to have children with various learning disorders.
"Generations at Risk, adapted from an earlier report for Massachusetts, reviews hundreds of chemicals released into the air and water in California, out of concern that exposure to a host of chemicals during critical periods of fetal or infant development may have lifelong and even intergenerational effects.
"Our Stolen Future by Theo Colborn (Dutton, 1996) recently revived the issue of endocrine disrupting chemicals. Since then several federal agencies, including the National Institutes of Health, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the FDA, have launched research efforts to study these chemicals.
SCREENING GOES FORWARD
In October the EPA outlined plans to screen thousands of chemicals suspected of mimicking hormones, targeting an initial 15,000 that are produced in high volumes. While the slow process of screening goes forward, scientific studies continue to produce troubling results:
What You Can Do
In examining the vast array of environmental contaminants thought produce non-cancerous, ill health effects, the authors of Generations at Risk conclude that the public health is not being adequately protected.
Of the more than 75,000 synthetic chemicals in commercial use today, only a small fraction have been adequately examined for toxic effects in humans and other life forms, the authors write. There is solid evidence of the reproductive toxicity of some substances that are widely used in commerce, including solvents, metals and pesticides. Endocrine-disruptors such as dioxin and PCBs can derail human reproduction and development by interfering with hormones, according to the book.
So what should we do? We think a precautionary approach better safe than sorry should replace the philosophy now in place, that chemicals are innocent until proven guilty, says PSRs Solomon. We think parents should know more and have a right to know more.
Francesca Lyman is an environmental and travel journalist and editor of the recently released Inside the Dzanga Sangha Rainforest.
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