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CURRENT ISSUE:  May 7, 2007VOL. 45, NO. 9Oakland, CA

Doctors explore impact of toxins on life in womb

WASHINGTON (CNS) -- America is using “children as our test rodents” for thousands of new chemicals that have never been tested for toxicity to human life in the womb, said Dr. Philip J. Landrigan, director of the Center for Children’s Health and the Environment at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York.

At a recent conference at the headquarters of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in Washington, Landrigan and other experts highlighted the scientific, ethical and moral links between effective clean environment policies and the life and health of the nation’s children.

As an example of the impact of a tested toxin in the environment, Landrigan said an estimated 300,000 to 600,000 children born in the United States each year suffer a loss of 0.2 to 24.4 IQ points because of methylmercury that passed through the placenta when they were in the womb.

That does not include more than 1,500 American children born each year who are clinically classified as mentally retarded because of methylmercury exposure in the womb, he said. Coal-burning electrical plants, waste incinerators and plants producing chlorine gas are responsible for most of the methylmercury found in the food chain worldwide.

The conference featured scientists specializing in prenatal and pediatric health, ethicists, government officials and leaders of national Catholic organizations engaged in environmental and pro-life work.

Landrigan told the group that, of more than 80,000 new organic synthetic chemicals introduced commercially since the 1960s, 2,863 qualify as “high production volume” -- more than a million pounds a year of each one are produced in or imported into the United States.

“No basic toxicity information is publicly available for 43 percent” of those high-volume chemicals and “full information on toxicity is publicly available for only 7 percent,” he said.

Dr. David O. Carpenter, director of the Institute for Health and the Environment at the University at Albany of the State University of New York, described the toxic effects of polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, when a metabolized form is transmitted from the mother to the child in her womb. Although PCBs have been banned for decades, they remain in the environment in massive quantities and work their way up through the food chain.

Prenatal exposure to PCBs can increase compulsive behavior and alter gender-specific behaviors, he said, but “the most damaging thing is the reduced ability to think.”

Frederick S. vom Saal, a professor of reproductive biology at the University of Missouri-Columbia, said that phthalates -- chemicals used to make polyvinyl chloride soft and pliable -- are widely used in cosmetics in the United States although the European Parliament has banned such use.

Prenatal exposure to phthalates has been linked to premature birth, inhibited genital development, low testosterone, asthma, allergies and obesity, he said.

Although 153 of 167 government-funded studies have found such exposure to phthalates harmful, chemical companies have produced 13 studies that concluded they are not harmful, and the cosmetic industry uses those studies for “the creation of scientific uncertainty” to stave off regulation, he said. He warned the group always to check who funds the research.

 


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