A mother’s womb is a protective cocoon, but it is also where humans for the first time encounter the world that awaits them after birth. This encounter happens through sound and touch and through the exchange of blood between mother and child. About 300 quarts of blood from the mother bring nutrient and oxygen to the developing child every day.
The blood also delivers industrial pollutants like dioxins, consumer products chemicals like flame retardants and chemicals that come from pesticides, according to a study by the Environmental Working Group, a Washington, D.C.-based consumer advocacy group. The study tested samples of umbilical cord blood from 10 babies born in August and September 2004 in U.S. hospitals for 413 toxins and environmental pollutants.
On Tuesday, Ken Cook, co-founder and president of the Environmental Working Group, presented the results of the 10 Americans study at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill as part of the N.C. Science Festival.
The pollution in people by the numbers:
The placenta doesn’t filter out industrial toxins and environmental pollutants
The 10 babies couldn’t have inhaled, digested or absorbed the chemicals by being exposed to them in the air, water, food or personal care products. Their exposure was in the womb, where no blood brain barrier protected their developing brains.
The test results showed that the 10 cord blood samples contained:
- 287 toxins and chemical pollutants, 200 on average per sample.
- 28 waste products, such as dioxins and furans, chemicals that come out of smoke stacks.
- 47 consumer product ingredients, such as flame retardants from furniture and clothing, teflon chemicals and pesticides.
- 212 industrial chemicals and breakdown products from pesticides that have been banned for 30 years or longer.
The mere presence of a toxin doesn’t automatically mean it is doing damage, but the 10 Americans study findings raise concern, Cook said, because of the chemicals found:
- 134 have shown to cause cancer in lab animals or people.
- 151 are associated with causing birth defects.
- 154 are endocrine disruptors, they interfere with the body’s hormonal system and produce adverse developmental, reproductive, neurological, and immune effects.
- 186 are linked to infertility.
- 130 are immune system toxins.
- 158 are neurotoxins.
Low doses and unusual health trends
The concentrations of the chemicals in the samples were low, just parts per billion. In pancakes, 1 ppb is like one pancake in a stack of pancakes 4,000 miles high.
- Mercury: 0.07 ppb to 2.3 ppb.
- Polyaromatic hydrocarbons, pollutants from burning gasoline and garbage that can increase the risk of cancer: 217 ppb to 384 ppb.
- DDT and other pesticides that were banned 30 or more years ago: 8.72 ppb to 35 ppb
- PCBs, banned since 1976: 2.99 ppb to 19.7 ppb.
But concentrations of active ingredients in medicines are also low and the medicines have positive and negative effects. As Cook quipped, 30 ppb of tadalafil in Cialis can promote conception, 0.035 ppb of two female hormones in NuvaRing can prevent conception and 30 ppb paroxetine hydrochloride in Paxil can help you “chill out either way.”
It’s not clear how damaging the industrial pollutants, pesticides and consumer product chemicals on the market are to human health. But epigenetics, research that looks at how environmental factors activate or turn off disease-causing genes, is a hot area of science.
Meanwhile, rapid increases in some diseases in the past 30 years to 40 years are prompting Cook to ask, “What’s going on? We don’t evolve that quickly.”
- Acute lymphocitic leukemia in children has increased 84 percent.
- Childhood brain cancers have increased 57 percent.
- At 17.7 percent, the risk of cancer is highest in the U.S., but immigrants from lower-risk countries develop U.S. breast and prostate cancer risk rates within one generation.
- Breast development now happens about one year earlier in white girls and nearly two years earlier in black girls than 50 years ago.
- Autism spectrum disorder is the fastest growing developmental disorder in the U.S., with an annual growth rate of 10 percent to 17 percent. About 1 in 110 children have the disorder, the majority of them boys.
- The number of hypospadia cases, a birth defect of the urethra in boys, has doubled.
Suggestions to minimize exposure
It’s impossible to avoid exposure, Cook said. But he offered a list of suggestions to minimize exposure. Federal legislation that would require more testing of chemicals and make the test results public tops his list.
The suggestions include:
- Buy organic.
- Eat fish that is low in mercury.
- Filter tap water. Check out the Environmental Working Group’s National Drinking Water database. It includes quality reports for Durham, Raleigh and Cary.
- Use cast-iron and stainless steel cookware instead of nonstick products.
- Shop smart for personal care products, such as shampoos, cosmetics and toothpastes. Stay away from nail polish and dark hair dye and check out other products on the Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep database.
Watch a video of Cook making a similar presentation last year: