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Environmental connections to public health >>

Greening your family: One woman's inspiration

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Special to Enviroblog by Lindsey Carmichael, MPH, Author, Greening Your Family

My public health ethics class began with the intense, young professor asking a simple question: What do you value the most?

We were given a few moments to reflect, and were then asked to share our answers with the class. Fairly quickly a theme emerged, one focusing on relationships with family. For one student, her relationship with God trumped family, and for a few others the idea of freedom was the thing they valued the most, but people factored into the majority of responses to the question of what they held most dear.

I think it's safe to assume that for those of us who are parents, our children and their well-being rank at the top of the list of things we value. Collective well-being is what Greening Your Family is about.

There was a landmark, one-of-a-kind study conducted in 2004 by the Environmental Working Group called 10 Americans (watch the video). Researchers took samples of the umbilical-cord blood of ten babies and tested it for the presence of 413 toxic chemicals.

The results were alarming. More than 285 industrial chemicals were found in the cord blood, with an average of roughly two hundred chemicals per child. The testing revealed the presence of dioxins, volatile organic compounds, Teflon by-products, and pesticides.1 Exposure to some of these chemicals is associated with a host of serious adverse impacts on human health, including immune and hormone system disruption, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), infertility, birth defects, and cancer.2

How many of you reading this knows a child with ADHD, or has a friend who has had trouble conceiving?

Lobbyists in the industrial chemical industry acknowledge the presence of these chemicals in humans, but they assert that these chemicals exist at extraordinarily low doses, or concentrations, and that therefore any adverse effect on human health is dubious.

Ken Cook, EWG president, addressed this point in a presentation he gave about the 10 Americans experiment. He talked about the fact that many pharmaceuticals are designed to trigger the desired biological effect at very low doses, and discussed various examples.

The asthma drug Albuterol, he said, is designed to be effective at 2.1 parts per billion. Cialis, the erectile-dysfunction drug, is designed to trigger the desired biological effect at 30 parts per billion. Cook made the point that 97.5 parts per billion of the chemical Badge-40H (found in the liners of tin cans and linked to hormone system disruption) were found in a sample of blood taken from a man living in New York City.

The same person registered 45 parts per billion of perfluorocarbons (PFCs), the industrial chemical found in nonstick materials such as Teflon. In studies though PFCs have been linked to both hormone disruption and cancer. Thus, the concentration of some of these chemicals is minute, their effect is not. The impact of exposure to pharmaceuticals is regulated and well studied; the impact of exposure to industrial chemical cocktails is neither well regulated nor well studied.

The 10 Americans study confirms that babies today are born pre-polluted. We know that the most vulnerable times in human development are in the womb and in infancy. And we know, based on the results of EWG's research, among other sources, that as a society, we are not adequately protecting those who are most vulnerable.

It is time to start.

Lindsey Carmichael's Greening Your Family is available from the author's web site. You can read a review in The Boston Globe.


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