Toxic Chemicals Found in umbilical Cord Blood
By Erik Arvidson,
Transcript Statehouse Bureau
BOSTON — A group of scientists and medical experts Thursday called for broader research on the effects of toxic chemicals on newborn babies in the wake of a national study that found dozens of possibly harmful chemicals in human umbilical cord blood.
Unborn babies are potentially being exposed to fire retardants, methylmercury, and pesticides that may cause abnormal development or increased cancer risks, environmental advocates warned.
The Environmental Working Group, a Washington, D.C., public interest organization, released a study of the umbilical cord blood of 10 randomly selected newborns in 2004 where nearly 300 types of chemicals were detected.
Scientists until recently believed that fetuses were protected from toxic chemicals by the placenta, the organ that receives nutrients from the mother’s blood and filters out waste. However, the study’s authors, along with environmental advocates, believe that the umbilical cord also carries industrial chemicals and other pollutants to the fetus.
“These are not naturally occurring chemicals. They’re ones we made up,” said Dr. Sean Palfrey, past president of the Massachusetts chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics. “These substances are obviously in the parent’s blood and bodies for some reason. The body doesn’t know how to deal with these substances and can’t secrete them.”
The Environmental Working Group study found traces of a total of 287 chemicals in the umbilical cord blood of the 10 newborns, including some chemicals that have been banned in the United States for decades. Each newborn had an average of 200 of the chemicals present, according to the study.
The Environmental Working Group said it obtained the umbilical cord blood samples from the American Red Cross, and that the analysis was done by two Canadian research labs. The chemical analysis found polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, which were used as lubricants and industrial insulators until they were banned in 1976. The chemical, which can persist in river sediments and the tissue of fish and some mammals for decades, is considered by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to be a “probable human carcinogen.”
The study also found mercury, which comes from emissions from coal-fired power plants and can harm brain function. Some of the blood samples also contained DDT, a pesticide banned in 1972 after it was found to cause unacceptable risks to human health.
In addition, the study found common consumer product chemicals used to resist heat, water and oil, such as for nonstick cookware and stain-resistant carpets.
Some byproducts that are produced after the burning of medical or municipal waste, including dioxins and furans, were found in the cord blood as well.
Joel Tickner, an assistant professor at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell School of Health and the Environment, said that while the Environmental Working Group used a small sample size to study, the number was still “scientifically relevant.” He added that the troubling part was that the newborns were randomly selected.
He said the study confirms a failure by both the state and federal governments, and the chemical manufacturing industry, to adequately study the use of these industrial chemicals.
“The big question is do we want to make the mistakes that we’ve already made. What can we learn from those mistakes to make safer chemicals?” Tickner said. “UMass Lowell has some of the most innovative and cutting edge research on green chemistry, sustainable plastic and biomaterials in the world. We are ready in this state to make the alternatives, it just needs a government and industrial commitment to do it.”
Tickner said parents can take steps to prevent harm to their newborns by eating organic foods and not using the common household and flame-retardant products found in the study. However, he added that “individual choices can only go so far,” and that parents can do little about industrial chemical pollutants.
Palfrey said that while previous studies have found chemical exposure in newborns, none had searched for the number of chemicals included in the Environmental Working Group study.
He added that while the dangers of chemical exposure need to be further studied, it’s clear that the vital organs of fetuses and young infants are “especially vulnerable to harm” from hazardous chemicals.
The Massachusetts House and Senate both voted Thursday to restore $250,000 to the state budget for fiscal 2006 for the Toxics Use Reduction Institute at UMass Lowell, funds that had been cut by Gov. Mitt Romney. Tickner said the funds would pay for research into safer alternatives to toxic substances.
The Environmental Working Group‘s study commissioned five laboratories to examine theumbilical cord blood of 10 babies of African-American, Hispanic and Asian heritage and found more than 200 chemicals in each newborn.
“We know the developing fetus is one of the most vulnerable populations, if not the most vulnerable, to environmental exposure,” said Anila Jacobs, EWG senior scientist. “Their organ systems aren’t mature and their detox methods are not in place, so cord blood gives us a good picture of exposure during this most vulnerable time of life.”
Of particular concern to Jacobs: 21 newly detected contaminants, including the controversial plastics additive bisphenol A, or BPA, which mimics estrogen and has been shown to cause developmental problems and precancerous growth in animals. Last month, researchers reported that male Chinese factory workers exposed to high levels of the chemical experienced erectile dysfunction and other sexual problems.
“BPA is a really important finding because people are really aware about its potential toxicity,” Jacobs told reporters. “This is the first study to find BPA in umbilical cord blood, and it correlates with national data on it.”
Jacobs said the study focused on minority children to show that chemical exposure is ubiquitous, building on 2005 research on cord blood from 10 anonymous babies. That study found a similar body burden among the babies. This is the first study to look at chemicals in minority newborns.
“Minority groups may have increased exposure to certain chemicals, but here we didn’t focus on those chemicals,” Jacobs said. “The sample size is too small to see major differences, but we want to increase awareness about chemical exposures.”
Leo Trasande, co-director of the Children’s Environmental Health Center at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine, said the findings, while preliminary, show that minority communities are often disproportionately affected by chemical exposure. Trasande was not involved in the EWG study.
“Presently, minority communities suffer from a host of chronic disorders, and disproportionate chemical exposures may contribute significantly to the origins of the disparities that exist,” Trasande said.
Both he and Jacobs said the findings add momentum for the call to revamp the Toxic Substances Control Act, or TSCA, the law regulating the more than 80,000 chemicals on its database. They released the report on the same day that a Senate panel is scheduled to discuss the government’s strategy for managing the tens of thousands of chemicals in the marketplace with an eye toward overhauling TSCA.
TSCA does not require most chemicals to be tested for safety before they are approved for widespread use. Because of this, Trasande said, less than half of the 3,000 high-production volume chemicals on the marketplace have toxicity data, and less than one-fifth have toxicity testing data on the effects on developing organs.
“These results are alarming for their implications of health impacts on children,” Trasande said.
Another challenge facing chemical regulators is understanding how the different chemicals interact together, which is particularly significant given the number of chemicals found in people.
“What we’re finding are complex mixtures of chemicals that sometimes have similar toxicities,” Jacobs said. “There’s an increased recognition that mixtures are a problem. … It’s very difficult to evaluate, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. We should also try to decrease the toxicity of individual chemicals.”
Reprinted from Greenwire with permission from Environment & Energy Publishing, LLC. www.eenews.net, 202-628-6500