While there is no science that demonstrates a conclusive cause-and-effect relationship between chemicals children are born with and particular health problems, studies are finding associations between elevated levels of chemicals in a baby’s body and their development.
Dr. Frederica Perera, director of the Columbia Center for Children’s Environmental Health has been following hundreds of pregnant women over the past 12 years to measure chemicals entering the womb during pregnancy.
The women trudge through New York City for 48 hours wearing special backpacks, each with a long tube that is slung over the shoulder. The tube, resting inches below the pregnant mom’s mouth, sucks air into a special filter, giving an approximate measurement of the air that she is breathing.
The backpack is designed to measure ambient toxics spewed by vehicles and pesticides, along with chemicals from common household products.
“It surprised me when we analyzed the air samples [from the backpacks] and found 100 percent of them had detectable levels of at least one pesticide and the air pollutants we were interested in,” said Perera.
So far, the toxics measured in the backpacks match what scientists are finding in the cord blood of the babies once they are born. Small studies by other groups also are finding common household chemicals in babies.
“We’ve measured hundreds and hundreds of toxic chemicals in the blood of babies that are still in the womb,” said Ken Cook, president of the Environmental Working Group, a non-profit environmental advocacy organization. “Flame retardants, the chemicals in consumer products like personal care products, makeup, shampoos. It’s a very long list.”
The organization’s study found an average of 232 chemicals in the cord blood of 10 babies born in late 2009. They are chemicals found in a wide array of common household products, including shampoos and conditioners, cosmetics, plastics, shower curtains, mattresses, and electronics like computers and cell phones.
Perera and her colleagues are following the children in their study from the uterus, through birth, and up to their first several years of life. They recently published a study in the journal Pediatrics demonstrating an association between the chemicals they found in babies’ cord blood and later problems on intelligence tests and development.
“Fifteen percent of children [in our study] have at least one developmental problem,” Perera said.
The amount of chemicals measured in the cord blood of the babies seems to matter. The higher the concentration, the more the IQ among children seems to dip. The study is also being conducted among pregnant women in Poland and China, and finding similar results.