Editor’s Note: Anna finished this post (and a few more) before she went on maternity leave. She gave birth to a healthy girl, Audrey, on December 13.
My husband Gus and I have been lucky. I’m 36—and therefore considered an “elderly primigravida” on my charts at my doctor’s office (that’s “pregnant old-timer and first-timer” in layman’s terms). I’ve had a healthy pregnancy—so far—and we avoided the nightmarish saga of infertility that many acquaintances have suffered. But our story, as typical as it sounds, could be becoming a thing of the past—unless we demand better protections from toxic chemicals for our children and ourselves.
As the Center for American Progress (CAP) reported recently (full report here, pdf), fertility problems, miscarriages, preterm births, and birth defects are all up. These trends are not simply the result of more women postponing motherhood to their late thirties like I have. Nope, it’s more likely the chemicals all around us.
In fact, women under 25 and between 25 and 34 reported an increasing number of fertility problems over the last several decades. An estimated 3 to 10 percent of women have endometriosis—a leading cause of infertility that has been linked to chemical exposures. Nor are reproductive health problems limited to women. In men, average sperm count appears to be steadily declining, and there are rising rates of male genital birth defects such as hypospadias, a condition in which the urethra does not develop properly.
Why is it happening? A link may be made to dramatically increased chemical production. The number of chemicals registered for commercial use in the US now stands at 80,000—a 30 percent increase since 1979. According to the EPA’s Toxics Release Inventory, US polluters reported a total of 4.1 billion pounds in toxic releases to the air, water, and soil. Three chemical groups—phthalates, BPA, and PBDEs—are linked to reproductive health problems and are present in all of our daily lives.
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Tests of blood and urine by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention confirm rising and widespread exposure to a chemical soup of metals, pesticides, plasticizers, and other substances—many of which are dangerous to reproductive health. And young children—and fetuses—are often exposed to significantly higher levels of these chemicals than adults.
Gus and I may have been lucky enough to escape fertility problems, but the next generation might not.
Some health problems are also influenced by factors such as healthcare, and nutrition, but many birth defects on the rise that have been linked to chemical exposures:
- Cases of hypospadias, in which the male urethra does not develop properly, have doubled since the 1970s.
- Gastrochisis, a malformation in which the fetal intestines protrude through the stomach wall, has steadily increased over the last two decades.
- The percentage of US students treated for a learning disability has increased from 8.3 percent in 1976 to 13.8 percent in 2005.
- Reported cases of autism have increased 10-fold since the early 1990s. (A recent study found a higher incidence of autism among children who live in homes with vinyl floors containing phthalates, but research in this area is limited, and the connection between chemical exposure and autism remains unclear.)
Who knows what health consequences from chemical exposures are yet to be discovered and documented? Little is known, for example, about how different chemicals interact with one another in our systems.
And as CAP author Reece Rushing writes, “Even seemingly small upticks can have large consequences. There were a total of 4.3 million births in the US in 2006. A rise in birth defects of just 1 or 2 percent increases the total number of afflicted children by tens of thousands.”
I have to admit I’ve played the chemical safety card around the house while I’ve been pregnant, refusing to clean the bathroom and obsessively reading ingredients labels on every product we have in the cupboard—and then refusing to touch it. My husband is playing along pretty well. And in spite of all our “nesting” instincts, we’ve also put off some renovation projects (like pulling up the ugly 1960s kitchen floor or painting the bathroom). But many of the potentially harmful exposures can’t be avoided because our chemical safety laws do not provide adequate protection from these chemical groups and other dangerous substances.
More than 95 percent of human exposure to dioxin, for example, comes from food intake—the very foods I’ve been eating more of to provide the fetus with protein and vitamins: beef, chicken, eggs, fish, milk, and cheese. PBDEs are also found in many of the same foods—the levels of PBDEs in North American’s bodies have risen quickly, and are now 40 times higher in North America than other continents. Chemicals are also found in soap, toothpaste, shampoo, deodorant. Plus, my body has probably stored all kinds of toxic stuff over the years. A lot of these substances accumulate over time and most of them take way too long to break down naturally to avoid passing them on to a fetus.
A 2004 study tested blood samples from umbilical cords and found 287 industrial chemicals present (out of 413 chemicals tested for), including pesticides, consumer product chemicals, and wastes from burning coal, gasoline, and garbage. That is, mercury (emitted from coal-fired power plants and other industrial facilities), PBDEs (fire retardants used for furniture, electronics), polyaromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs, from burning gasoline and garbage), organochlorine pesticides (including DDT which has been banned but persists in the environment)—among many others. Many of these—particularly PBDEs—are found in human breast milk.
Truly twisted is the fact that babies are exposed to phthalates in baby products—baby powder, baby lotion, baby shampoo, and diapers, just to name a few culprits! I mean come on!! The compounds are also found in food containers, toys, flooring, wall coverings, crib mattresses, dog toys, and many other prodcuts. Bisphenol A—also known as BPA—is nearly as ubiquitous: it’s found in baby bottles, as well as toys, food and drinking containers, and electronics. BPA poses threats even at low doses and has been linked to prenatal exposure causing reduced sperm count, altered reproductive tract development, abnormal brain development, hyperactivity, miscarriage, and later-life health problems, including obesity and prostate and breast cancer.
Fortunately, we’re starting to set legal limits on some of these chemical threats. The Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act of 2008, supported overwhelmingly by Congress, bans three types of phthalates in children’s products and temporarily outlaws three others while their effects are studied. Some states have successfully banned BPA, for example—including Connecticut, Minnesota, and several cities and counties around the world.
In the Northwest, efforts to curb chemical threats have a mixed record. On the positive side of the ledger, Washington State became the first state to ban DecaBDE in household goods in 2007.
But opposition from chemical companies and Wal-Mart blocked the Safe Baby Bottle Act of 2009 from becoming law this year in Washington State—a reasonable law that would have prevented use of BPA in baby bottles. (Canada banned BPA in all baby bottles in 2008, and similar legislation will come up for consideration in the US Congress in 2010.) And during the last weeks of the 2009 Oregon legislative session, the state legislature passed SB 637, an act to require Integrated Pest Management in Schools—basically keeping pesticides off school grounds. But the bill still awaits the governor’s signature.
The Government Accountability Office recently added chemical safety to its “high risk list” of areas that should be addressed immediately. Chemical manufacturers are not required to conduct pre-market testing of industrial chemicals or chemicals used in cosmetics and household products. Rather, as the CAP study points out, “real human beings in the real world—and our precious babies—end up as guinea pigs.”
The prospects for addressing this situation fortunately appear to be brightening. Congress took a first step last year following the discovery of contaminated Chinese-made toys, passing legislation that requires pre-market testing of children’s products sold in the United States and bans lead and phthalates from being contained in such products. Legislation has also been introduced to ban BPA in all food and beverage containers, and there will likely be a renewed push for the Kids Safe Chemical Act, which would reform the ineffectual Toxic Substances Control Act.
In September of this year, Lisa Jackson, administrator of the EPA, announced historic plans to overhaul federal toxic chemicals controls, with more rigorous testing and safety standards and greater EPA authority to protect the public. Several of the principles set forth by Jackson and the president mirror sections of the landmark Food Quality and Protection Act of 1996 (FQPA) that has successfully reduced the public’s exposure to harmful pesticides by measures such as considering particularly vulnerable populations like children when assessing a chemical’s risk.
Still, the United States is playing catch up. CAP points to Europe as a model to emulate. The EU is implementing an ambitious program that demands chemical safety testing upfront and restricts chemicals found to be dangerous. The program, known as REACH—Registration, Evaluation, Authorization, and Restriction of Chemicals—identifies and tries to eliminate substances of very high concern and then allows only authorized use of the toxics. Canada recently adopted similar reforms.
These actions abroad, of course, have significant implications for US manufacturers that export their wares, spurring the adoption of safer alternatives in products sold stateside. But, as that’s happening, anyone who resents being a guinea pig—or playing “reproductive roulette” with their families—should demand more legal restrictions here at home.