July 22, 2005 – Following a recent study on pollutants in newbornsâ€™ blood, public advocacy groups are warning communities that their most vulnerable members face more risks than ever from exposure to industrial chemicals. Researchers and activists have called on the government to catch up with science on toxic exposures by reforming a regulatory regime that critics say currently coddles polluting industries at the expense of childrenâ€™s health.
According to a study released last week by the Environmental Working Group, a policy research and activist organization, tests measuring the so-called "body burden" of industrial chemicals, conducted on ten random samples of umbilical cord blood, detected 287 chemicals.
The samples, supplied by the American Red Cross, registered 180 chemicals known to cause cancer in adults, 217 that are linked to brain and nervous system damage, and 208 that have been shown to affect fetal or child development in animal tests. For 209 of the contaminants, this was the first time researchers had identified the chemicals in newborn blood.
Although the sample in the EWG study was small, largely limited by the cost of the extensive tests, the results feed into an expanding pool of research that offer clues about potential public health problems and raise questions of what more should be done to study and protect against these impacts.
Though the blood samples were fresh from the womb, they already bore the imprint of a litany of chemicals from various industrial sources.
"Itâ€™s a huge wakeup call," said Dr. Alan Greene, a pediatrician and Stanford University medical professor who helped direct the study, in an interview with The NewStandard. "We need more research to find out the extent of the problem nationwideâ€¦ and what steps we can take to fix this huge gap in our health safeguards for babies."
Though the blood samples were fresh from the womb, they already bore the imprint of a litany of chemicals from various industrial sources: mercury, which is pumped into the environment by coal-fired power plants and is known to impede brain development; 21 different pesticide chemicals which, according to previous toxicological studies, are known or suspected to cause cancer and reproductive health problems; and 147 types of Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), a class of pollutants found in industrial insulation and lubricants that research has linked to cancer and nervous system damage.
The results suggest that despite bans on the production of certain chemicals, they may linger in the environment for decades. Of the 21 pesticides registered in the newborn blood, fourteen had been phased out in the United States. Similarly, the PCBs detected were specifically targeted for phase-out and disposal in the Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976 (TSCA).
Although some of the chemicals found in the blood have been associated with health problems in previous studies, the report noted that the health effects on newborns of most of the chemicals have not undergone extensive research -- a fact that many environmentalists and public health experts take as a prompt for both more testing and precautionary regulations in response to the uncertainty surrounding many industrial substances.
the Environmental Protection Agency has very limited power to compel the chemical industry to research the health impact of products before releasing them onto the market.
The EWG study builds on the findings of its earlier study on the so-called "body burden" of chemicals in adults, released in 2002. That research detected 167 chemicals in a group of nine people. On average, each subject harbored more than 50 chemicals associated with cancer in human or animal tests, and more than 60 substances tied to damage to the nervous system or brain.
In the newborn body burden study, the researchers concluded that chemical exposure was potentially much more damaging to infants than to adults because rapidly developing babies are more susceptible to the effects of chemicals.
At the same time, the bodyâ€™s defense mechanisms to ward off chemical contamination are still immature, and compared with adults, the contamination in newborns was much greater in proportion to their body mass. Moreover, researchers stated, a baby arriving into the world with chemicals already coursing through the bloodstream means that potential health problems have an entire lifetime in which to manifest.
According to Dr. Bruce Lanphear, director of the Cincinnati Children's Environmental Health Center, though the study did not offer clear indicators about the severity of chemical health risks in the general population, the lack of more detailed data should spur action, not skepticism.
"With this uncertainty," he commented, "we have two options: one is, we can continue to allow children and pregnant women to be exposed â€¦ Or we can say itâ€™s more important for us to protect children and pregnant women from exposure, and we need to be much more aggressive."
Activists are pushing for both pragmatic reforms and sweeping overhauls of the regulatory system to prevent and mitigate potential environmental health damage.
The Environmental Working Groupâ€™s findings dovetail with the public health communityâ€™s criticism of the Toxic Substances Control Act for lacking any real authority to hold chemical corporations accountable for health harms. Under the current system, say critics, the Environmental Protection Agency has very limited power to compel the chemical industry to research the health impact of products before releasing them onto the market.
Under current law, the EPA must follow a rigid procedure for requesting chemical manufacturers to assess the safety of their products. In general, when reviewing chemicals, the EPA relies not on tests of chemical safety but existing research and industry data. To issue a rule requiring industry testing for a certain chemical, the EPA must conduct its own analysis to determine whether the substance could potentially pose a significant public health risk.
According to a June report released by the Government Accountability Office, a government body that investigates the performance of federal agencies, the EPA typically lacks the resources to obtain and analyze scientific data to justify a mandate for chemical testing.
The GAO report also found that corporations, for their part, have generally resisted pressure to disclose information about the properties of their chemicals. Although the chemical industry and the government negotiated a plan for voluntary corporate testing of chemicals produced in especially large quantities, the GAO noted that corporations have refused to test roughly 300 of the 2,800 chemicals flagged in the program. Meanwhile, chemicals enter commerce at an average rate of 700 new chemicals each year.
Under the Toxic Substances Control Act, the EPA has reviewed new submissions of 32,000 chemicals and has initiated some sort of regulatory action or market withdrawal in about 3,500 cases. In addition, the GAO reported, more than 60,000 chemicals that were already on the market when the system was implemented were automatically labeled "safe" by the government; fewer than 200 of these have been subject to testing.
The EPA defends its regulatory policy as an adequate safeguard against chemical hazards. EPA spokesperson Eryn Witcher commented to TNS that since the TSCA requires the "least burdensome" regulatory action against a health threat, the EPA must "consider the risks and benefits of the substance to be regulated and the costs of regulating the substance."
"Production bans on chemicals are not always necessary to mitigate the unreasonable risks," said Witcher.
But environmental health advocates contend that as the EPA and chemical manufacturers sidestep the dangers of contamination, peopleâ€™s bodies and the public health system must ultimately absorb the cost of the chemical "body burden."
Activists are thus pushing for both pragmatic reforms and sweeping overhauls of the regulatory system, to prevent and mitigate potential environmental health damage.
A model often cited by public interest groups is the European Unionâ€™s new chemical regulatory system, which prioritizes harm reduction by mandating thorough and transparent testing for major industrial chemicals before they enter the market.
In the body burden report, the EWG issued a set of suggested reforms to the Toxic Substances Control Act. Recommendations included mandatory testing for chemical impacts on newborns and fetuses; barring corporations from withholding data about their products as confidential business information; requiring risk assessments of common combinations of industrial chemicals; and providing the EPA with the authority it needs to order full assessments of the safety of industrial chemicals and ensure compliance from the industry.
Last week, Senator Frank Lautenberg (D-New Jersey) proposed a small step toward regulatory policy reform with the Child, Worker and Consumer Safe Chemicals Act, which would force corporations to disclose the potential harmful effects of chemicals used in consumer products.
At a news conference announcing the bill, Lautenberg remarked, "We have laws to make sure that pesticides and medicines are safe -- but we fail to require similar analysis for the chemicals used in baby bottles, water bottles, food packages and thousands of other products. This is inexcusable."
The public health community is eyeing more long-range reforms, which aim to not only regulate chemical harms but also eliminate their sources.
On the issue of agricultural pesticides, in particular, which are regulated separately from the Toxic Substances Control Act but often remain on the market despite documented health risks, advocacy groups seek to move policies away from chemicals altogether, and toward more environmentally sound alternative pest control methods, such as solar heat treatment of soil.
For Greene, a specialist in child medicine, the politics of the chemical exposure carry a personal weight: "Looking into a newbornâ€™s eyes right before they even get their first bath and knowing that weâ€™ve already, in modern life, exposed them to a couple of hundred industrial chemicalsâ€¦ you know we have to do something, we have to learn about this, itâ€™s our responsibility."