By Ken Cook
Today, virtually every American newborn arrives with hundreds of industrial pollutants in its blood.* This before the child has taken more than a breath or two and had his first sip of breast milk or formula.
How did this happen? The primary reason for in utero chemical contamination is the mother’s exposure to pollutants, pesticides and industrial chemicals. Much of the blame for all this unavoidable contamination falls on the federal Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976. This law represents Congress’s first attempt to regulate the chemical industry and safeguard people and the environment from toxic exposures.
Unfortunately, its execution has been nothing short of a disaster. Some 83,000 chemicals are in commerce. The companies that make them have not had to prove that they are safe before they add them to the consumer goods that fill our homes, schools and businesses.
For decades scientists have been testing air, earth and water for pollution. Those analyses have helped identify contaminants in the environment and pinpoint their sources. However, until 2004 there was almost no research looking into industrial pollution in people, particularly infants in the womb.
My colleagues and I decided it was time to take a look. We sent samples of umbilical cord blood from 10 babies to a lab that analyzed each for manmade chemicals. We found a total of 287 contaminants, with an average of 200 in the blood of each baby.
Not long ago scientists thought that the placenta shielded cord blood — and the developing fetus — from most pollutants. But our research and similar cord blood testing established that during the critical window of development, the umbilical cord carries not only oxygen and nutrients to the growing fetus, but also a steady stream of industrial chemicals, pollutants and pesticides.
We’ve since tested cord blood from another 10 American babies and found a longer list of worrisome chemicals, many of them associated with serious health problems such as cancer, diabetes, infertility, behavioral issues, neurological and reproductive system abnormalities, early puberty, food allergies and other chronic conditions.
The ecosystem is awash in industrial chemicals. The American people are paying the price. Each of us is walking around with a body burden of pollutants, the consequences of which are unknown.
There is some cause for optimism. President Obama, Congressional leaders and the chemical industry agree with us and other advocates for health and the environment that federal toxic chemicals control policy is broken and must fixed to address the threats of the 21st Century. Reform legislation called the Kid-Safe Chemicals Act is gathering momentum on Capitol Hill. It aims to force industry to conduct rigorous tests to prove chemicals are safe before they can be introduced into the market.
We are advocating that provisions on the new policy give top priority to chemicals that turn up in cord blood. If something is shown to infiltrate the womb, unless it can be shown to be safe, it should be banned for good.
Ken Cook is the president of the Environmental Working Group, which he co-founded in 1993. He is the author of dozens of articles, opinion pieces and reports on environmental, public health and agricultural topics. Cook earned B.A., B.S., and M.S. degrees from the University of Missouri-Columbia. He lives in Bethesda, MD with his wife Deb Callahan and their young son, Cal.
*All adults, including pregnant women, carry a body burden of industrial chemicals, and as the EWG cord blood studies prove, the placenta does not shield the fetus from those pollutants. For more on the biomonitoring research conducted and commissioned by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, visit www.cdc.gov/exposurereport/