Babies blighted by pollutants

A new study commissioned by the Environmental Working Group challenges the assumption that babies in the womb are largely protected from most toxic chemicals.

Not long ago, scientists believed that babies in the womb were largely protected from most toxic chemicals. A new study helps confirm an opposite view: that chemical exposure begins in the womb, as hundreds of industrial chemicals, pollutants and pesticides are pumped back and forth from mother to baby through umbilical cord blood.

Washington DC-based Environmental Working Group (EWG) commissioned laboratory tests of 10 American Red Cross cord blood samples for the most extensive array of industrial chemicals, pesticides and other pollutants ever studied. The group found that the babies averaged 200 contaminants in their blood.

The pollutants included mercury, fire retardants, pesticides and the Teflon chemical PFOA. In total, the babies’ blood had 287 chemicals, including 209 never before detected in cord blood. Of the 287 chemicals detected in umbilical cord blood, 180 cause cancer in humans or animals, 217 are toxic to the brain and nervous system, and 208 cause birth defects or abnormal development in animal tests.

The blood samples came from babies born in US hospitals in August and September of 2004. The study, called Body Burden: The Pollution in Newborns, tested each sample of umbilical cord blood for 413 industrial and consumer product chemicals.

“For years scientists have studied pollution in the air, water, land and in our food. Recently they’ve investigated its health impacts on adults. Now we find this pollution is reaching babies during vital stages of development,” said EWG Vice President for Research Jane Houlihan. “These findings raise questions about the gaps in our federal safety net. Instead of rubber-stamping almost every new chemical that industry invents, we’ve got to strengthen and modernize the laws that are supposed to protect Americans from pollutants.”

US industries manufacture and import approximately 75,000 chemicals, 3,000 of them at over a million pounds per year. Yet health officials do not know how many of these chemicals pollute foetal blood and what the health consequences of in utero exposures might be. Many of these chemicals require specialized techniques to detect. Chemical manufacturers are not required to make available to the public or government health officials methods to detect their chemicals in humans, and most do not volunteer them.