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Toxic soup

(article, Tracy Ilene Miller)

Since the early 1980s, when a U.S. Surgeon General advisory turned fetal alcohol syndrome into a household phrase, women have been bombarded with pamphlets, studies, ads, articles, and doctors’ advisories of “personal responsibility” for what they put into their bodies while pregnant. 

But the focus on individual women and their eating and drinking habits may be far less important than looking at fetal exposure to common chemicals. The impact of this exposure to everyday environmental pollution manifests long after a baby is born, into adolescence and adulthood.

So said nearly 200 top environmental scientists at Denmark’s International Conference on Fetal Programming and Developmental Toxicity last May, where they issued a strong declaration that, taken as a whole, research “suggests that prevention efforts against toxic exposures to environmental chemicals should focus on protecting the fetus and small child as highly vulnerable populations. Given the ubiquitous exposure to many environmental toxicants, there needs to be renewed efforts to prevent harm. Such prevention should not await detailed evidence on individual hazards to be produced, because the delays in decision-making would then lead to propagation of toxic exposures and their long-term consequences.”

The scientists are warning against focusing on toxins at the individual level and instead prompting governments to deal with the consequences at a macro level. Research shows that many industrial chemicals and pollutants linger in our bodies in no small part because these chemicals are stored in fat, and humans are at the top of the food chain. A pregnant woman's conscious decision to eat the moldy blue cheese dotting her spinach salad is, in some ways, far less dangerous than her unconscious exposure to all manner of environmentally persistent toxins. Care for a short but poisonous list? These toxins include pesticides, fire retardants, phthalates (plasticizing agents used in plastics and cosmetics), lead, mercury, arsenic, and carbon monoxide.

Over the years, the U.S. government and industry have been resolute in challenging links between fetal health and environmental pollutants, and hesitant to legislate controls or regulations. But even the government has issued warnings about such problems as eating mercury-laden fish, absorbing the flame retardant polybrominated diphenyl ether (PBDE) from furniture and clothing, eating farmed salmon (which studies have shown to contain seven times the amount of polybrominated biphenyls (banned in the 1970s) than wild fish), and absorbing bisphenol A (a hormone-mimicking chemical linked to early puberty and autoimmune diseases) from polycarbonated plastics, such as water bottles and baby bottles.

Government and industry continue to refute these impacts on a case-by-case basis, but as the scientists at the Danish conference demonstrated, the long-term consequences of fetal toxic exposure include troubles as wide-ranging as obesity, thyroid diseases, diabetes, attention deficit disorders, and various cancers.