“We are by default conducting a massive clinical toxicological trial. And our children and their children are the experimental animals.”
– Dr. Herbert Needleman & Dr. Philip Landigran (1994, p. 3)
In their book Toxic Nation, Fred Setterberg and Lonny Shavelson describe a group of kids in Columbia, Mississippi, who turned a vacant lot into their playground. “There’s gooey stuff and you can squish and play with it,” said one excited 6-year-old boy. The lot they were on happened to be an unrestricted chemical waste site. The “gooey stuff” the boy was referring to was mud laced with benzene, a cancer-causing chemical. (Setterberg & Shavelson, 1993, p. 51)
In the long list of potential safety concerns parents have to contend with (electrical outlets, sharp objects, kidnappers, speeding cars, blood sucking vampire bunnies, grandma…) it’s easy for the issue of toxic exposures to be overlooked. It’s one of those invisible concerns – a subtle threat that’s hard to perceive and therefore easily dismissed. And it’s not just parents who live near toxic waste dumps that need to be concerned. As Philip & Alice Shabecoff write, “The health and well-being of children anyplace and everyplace in this country are under assault from a vast and largely uncontrolled array of hazardous, human-created substances in their environment.” (2010, p. 13) Toxins can be found everywhere in the world…including the body of that child you love so much.
Our children are now growing up in environments that expose them to numerous man-made chemicals before they are even born. Research has found that the umbilical cords of newborns contain traces of nearly 300 synthetic chemicals. (Kropp et al., 2005) A 2004 study of 10 newborns from across the country found anywhere from 154 to 231 chemicals in cord blood, and across the group as a whole, every single one of the 287 toxins tested for could be detected. (Shabecoff & Shabecoff, 2010, p. 42) A 2011 study in Environmental Health Perspectives found that nearly all of the 268 women studied had detectable levels of 8 different types of chemicals in their blood or urine. The percentage of women who had these toxic chemicals circulating throughout their body and their developing baby were:
- Perchlorate (used in rocket fuel): 100%
- BPA (bisphenol-A): 96%
- Lead: 94%
- Mercury: 89%
- Cadmium (a toxic heavy metal): 66%
- DDT (a banned pesticide): 62%
Studies have found levels of flame retardants in first-time mothers that are 75-times higher than that of their European counterparts. One woman clocked in at a toxic 1,078 ppb. (Shabecoff & Shabecoff, 2010, p. 82) A study by Columbia Center for Children’s Environmental Health ran tests on 230 newborns and their mothers, analyzing the babies’ first stool to see what they had been exposed to during pregnancy. They found the neurotoxin chlorpyrifos along with 29 other pesticides. (Whyatt et al., 2003) One in six newborns enters this world with unsafe levels of mercury in their body. (Shabecoff & Shabecoff, 2010, p. 43)
The toxic assault continues once children are out of the womb. Philip and Alice Shabecoff note that “The milk of virtually every mother on earth contains high levels of chemical pollutants.” (2010, p. 14) This includes toxic metals like mercury and lead. Studies have documented perchlorate in human breast milk at levels 5-times higher than that of typical dairy milk. (Dasgupta et al., 2005) DDT has been found at concentrations 6-times as high in breast milk as in blood. (Weiss et al., 2004) The level of PCBs routinely found in breast milk would be cause for regulatory action if the same levels existed in cow’s milk. Meanwhile, the dioxin it contains would prohibit its sale in many European countries. (Schettler et al., 1999, p. 229) Breastfeeding is still more advantageous than formula for many reasons, so this shouldn’t discourage mothers form breastfeeding. (Formula has its own problems; soy is high in manganese and also synthetic estrogen, and is grown in crops treated with pesticides. Formula derived from cow’s milk can contain many of the same chemicals mothers are exposed to, and no formula contains the beneficiary agents that a mother’s breast milk provides.) But it IS discouraging that our environment is so polluted that even a mother’s milk contains toxins.
The situation doesn’t improve much as children grow. Research by Sonya Lunder of the Environmental Working Group has shown that levels of chemical flame retardants are 3-times higher in toddlers and preschoolers than in their mothers. (Szabo, 5-5-2011) One toddler who was tested in 2005 for an article in the Oakland Tribune had higher levels of flame retardants in his tiny body than anyone ever tested outside of those who handle the stuff regularly. (Fischer, 2005)
A test of 598 children from 23 states found traces of the Scotchgard chemical in each and every child…not surprising considering the product was one of the company’s best-sellers. (Houlihan, 2004) CDC tests have found chlorpyrifos in the body of every child, some at levels 4-times higher than what the EPA considers “acceptable.” Another CDC study found 100 different chemicals in the bodies of children. Shabecoff and Shabecoff point out that “Not one of these body-burden studies, not by the government or by the private or nonprofit sector, has yet to find an unpolluted child.” (2010, p. 42)
“The good news is that the classic diseases, cholera, dysentery, and so forth, that still stalk children in the third world have been eradicated here. For that reason, life expectancy has gone up and infant mortality has gone down,” says Philip Landigran. “The bad news: Today, children are subject to exposures of unknown toxicity to which children of one or two generations ago were not exposed.” (ibid, p. 209)
So what’s a parent to do with this information? It’s not our goal to be alarmist and give parents one more thing to freak out about, as if you don’t already have enough to freak out about as it is. (See the section, ‘How Harmful Are Everyday Chemicals,’ to put this risk in perspective.) But this is an issue that should concern us all. Not in a freak-out, lose your head, the sky is falling and our children are doomed concern, but a “this is something we need to acknowledge and deal with” concern.
With each day that goes by, more and more chemicals are unleashed into our environment (30 million metric tons of chemicals each day in the U.S. alone, to be exact), and many of these contaminants will be around for centuries. So the longer our disregard and complacency for this issue goes on, the worse the situation gets.