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Toxic elements found in infants' cord blood

by Christine Stapleton, Palm Beach Post Staff WriterPalm Beach Post
July 14th, 2005

In a benchmark study released today, researchers found an average of 200 industrial compounds, pollutants and other chemicals in the umbilical cord blood of newborns, including seven dangerous pesticides some banned in the United States more than 30 years ago.

The report, Body Burden The Pollution in Newborns, by the Washington, D.C.-based Environmental Working Group, detected 287 chemicals in the umbilical cord blood of 10 newborns. Of those chemicals, 76 cause cancer in humans or animals, 94 are toxic to the brain and nervous system and 79 cause birth defects or abnormal development in animal tests.

The findings are especially important in Florida, where farmers use more pesticides per acre than any other state.

"What's most startling is that we have such a wide range of compounds in us the moment we are born," said Tim Kropp, senior toxicologist for the project. "Babies don't use any consumer products, they don't work in a factory and yet they're already starting off with a load of these chemicals."

Among the most pervasive pesticides found: 4,4'-DDE a contaminant and byproduct of DDT, banned in the United States in 1972 but still used in other parts of the world to control mosquitoes; hexachlorobenzene, a fungicide widely used on wheat until 1965 when chemical giants Bayer and Dow voluntarily discontinued production of the likely carcinogen; and Dieldrin, routinely used on corn and cotton until banned in 1974 except for treatment of termites.

Scientists blame the presence of the pesticides in the babies' blood on the fact that many of the compounds take decades to break down and some are still used in foreign countries, which export produce to the United States.

For example, Mirex was used to control fire ants and as a flame retardant in plastics, rubber, paint, paper and electrical products from 1959 to 1972. It sticks to soil for years and contaminates fish and animals living near treated sites. Aldrin and Dieldrin, probable carcinogens, have not been banned or restricted in most of Central and South America. While most countries have banned imports, Brazil and Venezuela still allow the importation and restricted use of Dieldrin.

Besides the pesticides, chemicals from two widely used household products Teflon and Scotchgard were found in every baby tested. PFOS, the active ingredient in the stain-repellent Scotchgard, does not break down in the environment and has a strong tendency to accumulate in humans. While PFOS has not been found conclusively to be toxic to humans, lab tests have shown it can cause birth defects and deaths in laboratory animals given high doses. 3M, the sole manufacturer of Scotchgard, voluntarily agreed to phase out PFOS products in 2000 after pressure from the EPA.

PFOA, the chemical used to make such non-stick products as Teflon, is present in the blood of 95 percent of all Americans. Last month, an Environmental Protection Agency advisory panel released a report finding PFOA a likely carcinogen. The chemical has also been linked to birth defects and liver damage in lab tests.

Although the amounts of some of the chemicals detected were extremely small, the results are still troubling to experts, since no one knows how much of any given chemical much less a mixture of chemicals could affect a human fetus. What research exists has shown that chemical exposure in the womb can be dramatically more harmful than exposure later in life.

In 2003, the EPA updated its cancer risk guidelines, finding that carcinogens are 10 times as potent to babies and that some chemicals are up to 65 times more powerful in children.

The EPA also sets maximum exposure limits for many dangerous chemicals. However, the research behind those tolerances came from studies of "healthy men in the middle of life" not pregnant women and newborns, said Dr. Alan Greene, a faculty member and pediatrician at the Stanford University School of Medicine.

"We've only recently begun to consider the effects on the elderly, women and kids," Greene said. "We don't know what the safe levels are for these groups. Kids have been ignored for far too long."

Greene, whose family eats only organic produce, said the study should be "alarming and reassuring" for pregnant women.

"It's alarming because there were so many chemicals found, and we don't know their health effects, but at the same time the data coming in shows that decreasing your exposure to these substances does make a difference," he said.

There have been dramatic drops in the levels of DDT and its byproducts since it was banned in 1972. A 2002 study of preschoolers in Seattle showed that children who ate a conventional diet had nine times the level of pesticides in their urine as counterparts who ate organic, Greene said.

The Environmental Working Group conducted the study in collaboration with Commonweal, a California nonprofit health and environmental research institute. EWG is a nonprofit environmental watchdog/research organization that, according to its Web site, claims to "bring to light unsettling facts that you have a right to know. It shames and shakes up polluters and their lobbyists. It rattles politicians and shapes policy. It persuades bureaucracies to rethink science and strengthen regulation. It provides practical information you can use to protect your family and community."

Critics, such as David Martosko, research director Center for Consumer Freedom, said "a typical EWG study is a pseudo-science ruse meant to scare the ordinary American to death about the food we eat and the air we breathe." CCF is a nonprofit coalition of restaurants, food companies and consumers "working together to promote personal responsibility and protect consumer choices."

"They never met a square on the periodic table of elements that they couldn't turn into a sound bite," Martosko said. EWG "represents a political movement in the U.S. that wants to dump the world's finest farming system in favor of organic agriculture, a backward scheme that threatens to build a bridge back to the 19th century," Martosko wrote on the CCF Web site.

Prior studies have tested for chemicals and pesticides in umbilical cord blood. However, the Environmental Working Group study is the first to attempt to detect so many chemicals, pollutants and pesticides a total of 413. Of these, 307 had never been targeted in cord blood tests.

The study focused on cord blood, which mirrors the mixtures of chemicals the baby was exposed to while in the mother's womb. Before the cord is cut, the equivalent of 300 gallons of blood a day will flow through it, providing the baby with nutrition and removing waste.

In the Environmental Working Group study, the cord blood from 10 randomly selected, healthy babies born in August and September 2004 in U.S. hospitals was collected by the American National Red Cross as part of the organization's volunteer cord blood collection program. The costs of the testing $10,000 per sample and the lack of laboratories equipped to perform the testing prevented the organization from testing more samples.

The organization hopes the findings will encourage the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta to include testing of newborns in its National Exposure Report, due out later this month.

"This is the first time anyone has looked at this wide a range of chemicals, and in a way, that's kind of sad," said Kropp. "Whether it's the Food and Drug Administration or the EPA, you would think they would want to know the basic attributes of the most sensitive population. If these children are being born with these chemicals, we need to know they're safe. We shouldn't have to wait until children are harmed to do something."