Smart discussion about toxics policy reform

Why Are BPA and Other Chemicals in the Womb?

As a physician, I’m careful to ask my patients for a complete list of their medications  before prescribing another pharmaceutical because drugs that may not have any important side effects when taken individually can cause significant toxicity when mixed in the body.

As a scientist specializing in environmental health, I’m quite concerned about new Environmental Working Group-commissioned research that has detected more than 200 environmental pollutants in the cord blood of 10 American newborns from racial and ethnic minority groups.

Worse, many of the chemicals identified in the cord blood samples cause irreversible changes in the brains, reproductive systems and other vital organs of fetal and newborn test animals. Among the worst actors:

  • Bisphenol A, a hormone-disrupting plastic chemical now under federal scrutiny for a possible ban in baby bottles, infant formula cans and other food packaging;
  • Perchlorate, a rocket fuel component and ubiquitous water pollutant that undermines thyroid function crucial to brain development ;
  • Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), probable human carcinogens and endocrine disruptors effectively banned during the Carter administration, yet still showing up in human and animal tissue worldwide;
  • Lead, found in older pipes and paint, toxic to the brain and nervous system;
  • Mercury, another neurotoxin, commonly ingested in contaminated seafood like tuna.

Scientists are just beginning to explore how any one of these chemicals might undermine human development. The compounding effect of chemical mixtures on human health is uncharted territory. For example, both perchlorate and PCBs are known to affect the thyroid gland in humans. Their synergistic and/or cumulative impact on thyroid function is unknown.

What little we know about exposure to chemical mixtures, from animal studies, isn’t reassuring. In July 2009, researchers in Denmark and the United Kingdom reported that when they fed pregnant rats up to four hormone-disrupting chemicals — a common plasticizer, two fungicides that often contaminate food and a treatment for prostate cancer – the male pups were born with misshapen external sex organs. The more complex the mixture, the more striking the malformation.

Obviously much more research is critical. As a scientist, I’ll be keenly interested.

But as a physician, I am aware of the increasing burden of chronic disease among American children. As we learn more about how prenatal exposures to chemicals may set the stage for illness later in life, this study is one more powerful argument for immediate action to reform our nation’s policy on toxic substances.

Current federal law is so weak that it has allowed countless children to be born pre-polluted by toxic chemicals. We need to act quickly and decisively to protect future generations from these substances.


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4 Responses to “Why Are BPA and Other Chemicals in the Womb?”

  1. Charli says:

    Thanks Ms. Jacob, for posting something about chemical safety. I think making industrial chemicals safe for everyone is something we can all get behind. Problem is: mandating more chemical testing, the kind being advocated by the Safer Chemicals coalition, will kill millions of animals, cost hundreds of millions of dollars, and give us questionable results.

    Recently the New York Times gave the example: “The chemical industry cites one recent study in which BPA did not cause harm to the reproductive health of Long-Evans rats… while CD-1 mice (also used in many experiments) are more vulnerable. Are humans more like Long-Evans rats or like CD-1 mice?” This is precisely the problem.

    Humans differ greatly from other animals, just as animals so similar as rats and mice do. Testing the complexities of chemical mixtures is near impossible. These tests take anywhere from months to years, and tens of thousands to millions of dollars to perform. With so many chemicals out there, using animals to test every combination is unrealistic. And the inevitable high dosages in which we give animals these chemicals doesn’t serve as quality information because humans can respond to low-dose exposure.

    Alternatives to animal testing exist in a powerful way and many scientists advocate them. Chemical reform should not only modernize policy, but modernize the science that supports that policy. Let’s ensure that our new legislation uses all the necessary tools to truly make our children, our environment, and animals safe.

  2. Barbara Lowry says:

    1. Until this information is reported as front page news, the problem will continue unabated.

    2. Nano amounts of mercury and aluminum cause chronic brain inflammation.

    3. How many boomers have multiple mercury fillings that leeched that poison into our bodies? You grow up; you have children and you pass that legacy on to them. I know, because I’m one of them. Thank God for Homeotherapeutics. No more red flushed face, fuzzy thinking, irritability (mercury detox).

    4. . . .And then, we inject over 30 more pollutants into our babies in the name of preventative medicine called vaccines that contain more mercury, aluminum and “inadvertent” foreign animal viruses.

    It should not be a mystery why the U.S. is one of the sickest nations on earth. Let’s stop throwing money at drug research to cure specific diseases. Let’s put our time into truly understanding the CAUSE of the problem and then act on the revelation without fear that a large corporation may lose money because of it.

  3. Sara says:

    I think this is really interesting (and unfortunate!) that these contaminants were found in the cord blood of these babies… however, I think that you’ll be hard pressed to have large decision-making entities take a long, hard look at a study done on only TEN babies.

    It’s a really good start, but unfortunately, it takes large numbers and or very specific, pin-pointable causes to make an agencies like the EPA, WHO, CDC make a recommendation.

    If we’re pretty sure this is common, the next question is: What can we do to increase the study sample size to prove the point? When you start talking numbers like: 425 out of 500 infants showed these toxins in their cord blood… then it’ll be easier to get taken seriously, as it will then appear to be negligence on the part of the governing body, rather than a “okay, so it’s 10 kids. A fluke…”

    • Elaine Shannon says:

      Dear Sara,

      Dr. Jacob is traveling, so I’ll reply for her, for the moment. EWG would very much like to expand the sample size to 500. Testing for minute quantities is extremely expensive, and there are only a few labs set up to detect some chemicals like bisphenol A. Also, EWG has tried not to duplicate the valuable biomonitoring program of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which tests large samples of the population of adults and school-age children for pollutants. CDC’s latest report is here. Instead, EWG uses its resources to look at the pollution in newborns, a group not covered by CDC. As well, EWG looks for many different pollutants in a few individuals, to try to understand the depth as well as the breadth of human body burden.
      Elaine Shannon