Toxic Children: How US babies became born pre-polluted, and what can be done to fix this silent, insidious pandemic-Kenneth Cook

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Toxic children:
How U.S. babies became born pre-polluted, and what can be done to fix this silent, insidious pandemic
By Kenneth Cook, co-founder and president, Environmental Working Group
Ken Cook is president and founder of the Washington, DC-based Environmental Working Group (EWG). EWG is a public interest research and advocacy organization that uses the power of information to protect human health and the environment. Mr. Cook and EWG’s research and analysis are major forces in national policy debates over toxic chemicals, pesticides, air and water pollution, and the ecological impacts of modern agriculture.
he issue of environmental health has reached a tipping point in the United States and the rest of the industrialized world. The pollution in people is associated with a range of serious diseases and conditions, including childhood cancer, autism, other behavioral and learning issues, neurological and reproductive disorders, and birth defects – all of which are on the rise. Despite repeated warnings about the deleterious effects of industrial chemicals used to produce common household products, federal regulatory law impedes efforts to protect the public from exposure to these and other toxic chemicals. Environmentalists love to hate the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), which was enacted in 1976. Yet they have been unable to reform it because of fierce opposition from the chemical and plastics industries. And no wonder. The 1976 Act grandfathered over 62,000 chemicals already on the market, even though there was little or no data to support this decision. Since then, 20,000 more chemicals have gone onto the market in the U.S., again, with little or no data about their safety for humans, especially children. This shocking lack of modern scientific information is the direct result of a law that does not give the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) the authority to demand the information it needs to evaluate a chemical’s risk or to take action to protect the public health. In fact, TSCA is so toothless that the EPA was unable to use it to ban asbestos, which is responsible for 10,000 cancer deaths every
year. In 33 years, the EPA has banned or regulated only five chemicals: lead, PCBs, asbestos, radon, and PBBs. Earlier this year, the Government Accountability Office (GAO), the investigative arm of Congress, added reforming federal policy on toxic chemicals to its “priority list for action in 2009.” In other words, toxics policy reform is a must-do for the Obama administration. Fortunately, the political landscape in Washington for reform is promising. Leaders in both the House and Senate are poised to consider the Kid-Safe Chemicals Act (KidSafe), legislation first drafted in 2005. And, for the first time, the nation has a president and EPA administrator committed to using the power and authority of the federal government to protect children from the dangers of toxic chemical exposures. New Jersey Senator Frank R. Lautenberg (D-NJ) plans to introduce Kid-Safe this spring, and House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Henry Waxman (DCA), who sponsored the bill last year, has indicated that the House version will be introduced soon. Why we need a stronger law Not long ago, scientists thought that the placenta shielded the developing fetus from most pollutants in the environment. Not so: in 2005, Environmental Working Group (EWG) laboratory tests discovered an average of 200 chemicals in the cord blood of 10 American infants born in August and September of 2004.
EWG’s biomonitoring research shows that at a critical moment in early life – when organs, vessels, membranes and systems are rapidly developing, the fetus is exposed to a steady stream of industrial chemicals, pollutants, and pesticides. In November 2006, researchers from the Harvard School of Public Health and Mount Sinai School of Medicine reported in an article titled “A Silent Pandemic: Industrial Chemicals Are Impairing the Brain Development of Children Worldwide,” which was published in the medical journal The Lancet, that even low levels of exposure to environmental chemicals such as lead or mercury “can have subclinical effects” – not clinically visible, that can produce “permanent consequences.” The scientists concluded that “fetal and early childhood exposures to industrial chemicals in the environment can damage the developing brain and can lead to neurodevelopmental disorders (NDDs) – autism, attention deficit disorder (ADHD), and mental retardation.” Although researchers have made enormous strides in understanding the link between chemical exposures and human disease, the federal government still lacks authority to protect people from even the most hazardous chemicals on the market. This is why passage of the Kid-Safe Chemicals Act is so crucial. What the Kid-Safe Chemicals Act would do Kid-Safe takes a sound approach to regulating chemicals by giving highest
ISSUE 32 2009
This is why passage of the Kid-Safe chemicals Act is so crucial.
priority for review to chemical substances to which people are exposed, particularly those found in the umbilical cord blood of newborns. The legislation would mandate that any chemical found in a baby must meet the strictest standard of safety or be banned. Importantly, the Kid-Safe bill would shift the burden of proof from the government to the chemical industry to show that chemicals are safe for children before they wind up in consumer products. Currently, industry has no obligation to conduct adequate testing to make sure a new chemical is safe for people and the environment. Kid-Safe would also require that all scientific tests of chemicals be publicly available. Currently, these findings are treated as trade secrets and hidden from public view. While the connection between autism and chemical exposures may not be as clear as say, cancer is to tobacco use, 1 child in 150 is now diagnosed with autism, compared to 1 in 10,000 just 20 years ago. Today, more children have autism than cancer, AIDS, Down syndrome, and diabetes combined. Autism growing rapidly In fact, autism has become the fastest growing developmental disability in the country. A study by scientists from the University of California and published in the January 2009 issue of the journal Epidemiology concluded that the state’s sevenfold spike in autism cases among children over the span of 15 years cannot be explained by changes in the way doctors are diagnosing patients. While additional confirmatory research is needed, a study by researchers at the University of Northern Iowa titled “Ockham’s Razor and autism: The case for developmental neurotoxins contributing to a disease of neurodevelopment,” which was published in the March 2009 issue of the journal NeuroToxicology, found that children living near toxic Superfund sites were almost twice as likely to be diagnosed with autism as children who live in relatively unpolluted communities. Scientists are still in the early stages of exploring the pathways through which environmental chemicals trigger diseases and disorders. This much is certain: Americans, including children in the womb, newborns, and toddlers, are being exposed to a vast array of toxins. Some of these toxic chemicals are known to impair neurological development. When babies come into the world pre-polluted with hundreds of dangerous industrial chemicals already in their blood, it’s clear that the regulatory system is broken. By passing Kid-Safe we can protect the most vulnerable among us and give our children a safer and healthier future. You can make a difference by joining the KidSafe Campaign by signing The Declaration at
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