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Across Generations: The Chemical Pollution Mothers & Daughters Share and Inherit

For Immediate Release: 
Wednesday, May 10, 2006

The unique bond between a mother and daughter starts in the womb and lasts a lifetime. This Mother's Day, lab tests of mothers and their daughters show that they share another, unwanted bond: a common body burden of industrial chemicals that can be passed down across generations.

Tests commissioned by the Environmental Working Group (EWG) of four mothers and their daughters found that each of the test subjects' blood or urine was contaminated with an average of 35 consumer product ingredients, including flame retardants, plasticizers, and stain-proof coatings. These mixtures of compounds, found in furniture, cosmetics, fabrics, and other consumer goods, have never been tested for safety. The study is available at www.ewg.org.

Earlier EWG body burden testing, as well as tests by the Centers for Disease Control and other researchers, has found these and many other chemicals are building up in the bodies of all Americans. But these tests produced three eye-opening findings about the pollutants that can pass through a mother's placenta or breast milk into her daughter's body:

  • All four daughters tested had more chemicals in common with their mothers than with a group of 16 other women who were tested. This underscores the long-lasting influence of the pollution passed from mother to daughter, and their shared exposures as the child grows up.
  • Much of the chemical burden inherited by daughters at birth will last for decades, some for a lifetime. The daughters will likely pass on to their children some of the very chemical molecules they inherited from their mothers. The estimated age by which a daughter will purge 99 percent of the inherited pollution found in this study ranges from one day for phthalate plasticizers, to one year for mercury, to between adolescence and 60 years for common flame retardants and stain-proofing chemicals, to 166 years for lead.
  • Chemicals that persist in the body were found at higher levels in mothers than daughters, showing how chemicals can build up in the body over a lifetime. Mothers had an average of 1.5 to 5.2 times more pollution than their daughters for lead, methyl mercury, brominated flame retardants, and the Teflon- and Scotchgard-related perfluorochemicals PFOA and PFOS.

The findings were released today at a briefing at the California State Capitol. Joining public health advocates and four of the mothers and daughters were Senate President Pro tem Don Perata, Sen. Deborah Ortiz and Assemblyman John Laird, authors and co-sponsor of SB 1379, a bill to establish the nation's first state-level biomonitoring program to track pollution in people.

"We monitor the pollution in our air, our water, and even our fish. It's time to start looking at the pollution in our bodies," said Perata. "The report discussed today, which shows how chemicals can be passed from mother to daughter, is another vital reason Californians need the information provided by SB 1379, which would create the nation's first statewide biomonitoring program to measure chemical contaminants in humans."

The mothers and daughters in this study join 64 other people tested in six EWG biomonitoring programs conducted between 2000 and 2006. In total, EWG biomonitoring has found 455 different pollutants, pesticides, and industrial chemicals in the bodies or cord blood of 72 different people — including 10 newborn babies with an average of 200 chemicals in each child.

This is a burden of pollution made even more troubling by the lack of health studies or safeguards for the chemicals' individual or combined toxic effects. And exposures in early life heighten concerns over health risks.

"EPA studies show that children from birth to age two are 10 times more sensitive to cancer-causing chemicals than adults," said Jane Houlihan, EWG's vice president for research. "Scientists have found that chemicals' toxic effects can be passed down for four generations, by causing permanent genetic changes that can be inherited. A stew of toxic chemicals is not the legacy mothers want to hand down to their children."

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