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Last updated January 1, 2014

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 children’s 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 mother’s 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, we’ve been cancer-phobic,” says Daniel Sheehan, a researcher with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. “But now we’re 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 animal’s sperm count and affected the sexual behavior of its male offspring.

“How far we can extrapolate to human beings is of course what’s controversial now,” says FDA’s Sheehan.

“The more carefully researchers look, the more they seem to find,” says Gina Solomon, co-author of a recent report, “Generations at Risk: How Environmental Toxicants May Affect Reproductive Health in California,” prepared by the Physicians for Social Responsibility and the California Public Interest Research Group.

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.

Colborn, a zoologist with World Wildlife Fund, believes “a sizable proportion of children — those born after the mid 1940s — have already been affected by chemicals that interfere with the natural development of their hormone and endocrine systems.”

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:

  • A British study found that hormone-like compounds, released into rivers by sewage treatment plants, are “feminizing” a surprising large proportion of wild fish. Male fish are born with ovaries instead of sperm ducts.

  • University of Buffalo scientists found that girls and boys whose mothers ate large amounts of fish contaminated with PCBs exhibit slightly more masculine behavior than children whose mothers did not have as high exposure to endocrine-disrupters.

  • Women exposed to trihalomethanes (byproducts of chlorinated chemicals used in drinking water) during the third trimester of pregnancy may be more likely to give birth to low birth weight babies, a study shows. Trihalomethanes may even retard fetal growth.

What You Can Do
The best way to protect yourself and your children is to avoid unnecessary exposure to toxins in the home, experts say. Their advice:

  • Test household water, paint and garden soil for lead.
  • Insist on comprehensive chemical testing of your community water supply. Go over the results with the testers.
  • Avoid chemical cleaners, pest-killers, solvents and solvent-based paints, strippers and adhesives.
  • Do not use soft plastic containers and food wraps that contain phthalates. They may contaminate food and drinks.
  • Urge employers to investigate safer alternatives to suspected and known toxic chemicals.
  • Support government policies to reduce exposures and increase public information.
  • Avoid tobacco and unnecessary drugs. When pregnant, avoid alcohol.
  • Eat lower on the food chain, avoiding fatty foods.

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 PSR’s 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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