U.S. minority infants are born carrying hundreds of chemicals in their bodies, according to a report released today by an environmental group.
The Environmental Working Group's study commissioned five laboratories to examine the umbilical cord blood of 10 babies of African-American, Hispanic and Asian heritage and found more than 200 chemicals in each newborn.
"We know the developing fetus is one of the most vulnerable populations, if not the most vulnerable, to environmental exposure," said Anila Jacobs, EWG senior scientist. "Their organ systems aren't mature and their detox methods are not in place, so cord blood gives us a good picture of exposure during this most vulnerable time of life."
Of particular concern to Jacobs: 21 newly detected contaminants, including the controversial plastics additive bisphenol A, or BPA, which mimics estrogen and has been shown to cause developmental problems and precancerous growth in animals. Last month, researchers reported that male Chinese factory workers exposed to high levels of the chemical experienced erectile dysfunction and other sexual problems.
"BPA is a really important finding because people are really aware about its potential toxicity," Jacobs told reporters. "This is the first study to find BPA in umbilical cord blood, and it correlates with national data on it."
Jacobs said the study focused on minority children to show that chemical exposure is ubiquitous, building on 2005 research on cord blood from 10 anonymous babies. That study found a similar body burden among the babies. This is the first study to look at chemicals in minority newborns.
"Minority groups may have increased exposure to certain chemicals, but here we didn't focus on those chemicals," Jacobs said. "The sample size is too small to see major differences, but we want to increase awareness about chemical exposures."
Leo Trasande, co-director of the Children's Environmental Health Center at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine, said the findings, while preliminary, show that minority communities are often disproportionately affected by chemical exposure. Trasande was not involved in the EWG study.
"Presently, minority communities suffer from a host of chronic disorders, and disproportionate chemical exposures may contribute significantly to the origins of the disparities that exist," Trasande said.
Both he and Jacobs said the findings add momentum for the call to revamp the Toxic Substances Control Act, or TSCA, the law regulating the more than 80,000 chemicals on its database. They released the report on the same day that a Senate panel is scheduled to discuss the government's strategy for managing the tens of thousands of chemicals in the marketplace with an eye toward overhauling TSCA.
TSCA does not require most chemicals to be tested for safety before they are approved for widespread use. Because of this, Trasande said, less than half of the 3,000 high-production volume chemicals on the marketplace have toxicity data, and less than one-fifth have toxicity testing data on the effects on developing organs.
"These results are alarming for their implications of health impacts on children," Trasande said.
Another challenge facing chemical regulators is understanding how the different chemicals interact together, which is particularly significant given the number of chemicals found in people.
"What we're finding are complex mixtures of chemicals that sometimes have similar toxicities," Jacobs said. "There's an increased recognition that mixtures are a problem. … It's very difficult to evaluate, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't try. We should also try to decrease the toxicity of individual chemicals."