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I tried to avoid unnecessary exposure to chemicals during my pregnancy by eating organic and microwaving food in non-plastic containers. But a new study has me wondering whether my unborn child was stewing in toxins anyway.
An environmental advocacy group tested the umbilical cord blood of 10 newborns and found each baby averaged 200 contaminants in its blood, including mercury, fire retardants, pesticides and a chemical found in Teflon pots and pans.
We all harbor both natural and synthetic chemicals in our bodies because we eat, breathe and move about in an industrial society. In the recent Third National Report on Human Exposure to Environmental Chemicals, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention cautions that "just because people have an environmental chemical in their blood or urine does not mean that the chemical causes disease."
This belief is why some interest groups with industry support, such as the American Council on Science and Health, say there is no cause for alarm. Activists and journalists who write about the "tiny amounts of chemicals in people" are scaremongers, and the results for biomonitoring are "generally not meaningful."
"(Results) must be carefully combined with other data on chemicals and health in order to determine whether the levels found in people are cause for any concern," reads a council press release.
This pioneering study of umbilical cord blood, commissioned by the Environmental Working Group in collaboration with Commonwealth, a health and environmental research institute, was too small to draw any definite conclusions. The sample cord blood from the Red Cross came from just 10 anonymous newborns, largely because each test cost $10,000.
But prepolluted babies can't be a good thing, especially when science does show that chemical exposure in childhood, when brains and bodies are still developing, can be far more harmful than when it occurs later in life.
The study showed chemicals crossed the placenta, once thought to be a shield. But we don't know the possible effect, because the Environmental Protection Agency doesn't have the power it needs to fully regulate the tens of thousands of toxic chemicals in commercial use, according to the Government Accountability Office.
The disturbing GAO report (which you can and should read for yourself by going to www.gao.gov and typing GAO-05-458 into the report number box) found that the EPA's Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976 gives only "limited assurance" that chemicals entering the market - more than 700 a year - are safe.
The EPA "does not routinely assess the risks of all existing chemicals," and it has trouble obtaining the necessary information from companies, the report states. Since the EPA began reviewing chemicals in 1979, it has tested for fewer than 200 of the 62,000 chemicals in the marketplace, according to the GAO. In hindsight, we know asbestos can cause lung cancer and other diseases if inhaled. We know lead and mercury are highly toxic at certain doses.
We also know that rates of asthma, autism, attention deficit and hyperactivity disorders, childhood brain cancer and acute lymphocytic leukemia have increased over the last 30 years. Five to 10 percent of American couples are infertile.
But we have no idea what thousands of commercially used chemicals affect the human body or what happens when a baby is born with 200 chemicals in its system.
In June, the GAO recommended that Congress give the EPA additional authority to assess chemical risks. It's a good idea, but not a new one. In 1994, the office came up with the same finding, but nothing changed.
The Environmental Working Group urged the government to begin testing the umbilical cord blood of newborn babies in its regular assessment of exposure to environmental chemicals. It also asked 20 top chemical manufacturers to release any internal tests to determine whether their products pollute babies.
They haven't received answers, but they're still asking important questions.
"If you make a chemical that winds up in human blood, shouldn't you do a test to find out what it does?" asked Lauren Sucher, a spokeswoman for EWG. "Shouldn't our nation have safe enough pollution laws that our babies are born with 10 fingers and 10 toes, and not 200 industrial chemicals that we know nothing about?"
(Julie Deardorff is a columnist with the Chicago Tribune. Write to her at jdeardorff(AT)tribune.com. )
(c) 2005, Chicago Tribune. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service.