We tend to think of the womb as sacred, a safe temple—providing a secure buffer for the fetus, protecting it from all the poisons and hardships of the outside world. Not so.

pregnant ultrasound Flickr Trevor BairI’ve written about this before; toxics infiltrate the womb with ease. Sometimes the placenta even mistakes toxic substances—lead, mercury, pesticides, flame retardants—for something else and invites more in. Study after study finds hundreds of toxic chemicals in mothers’ and newborn babies’ bodies, yucky, damaging stuff that we’d never, ever knowingly expose our kids to. We are still learning what dire long-term effects this in-utero poisoning may be having on our kids’ health and behavior.

I find this information quite disturbing. So, I’m always glad (if glad is the right word here) when the issue finds its way to the mainstream. The more we know, the more of us who are informed, the better we can prevent this, right? CNN.com featured an informative article yesterday and plugged its two-night television special “investigative report” called “Toxic America,” with Sanjay Gupta, MD (it was broadcast Tuesday and Wednesday nights).

But one thing that’s typical about this kind of news story makes my (toxics-laced) blood boil.

The article starts with a question that encourages systems-level thinking about this problem (Is enough being done to protect us from chemicals that could harm us?) and goes on to describe ways that pregnant women have absolutely no choice but to take in toxics that are in the environment—like when they’re breathing air —but then weakly concludes with a standard list of day-to-day precautions a pregnant woman might take to protect herself and her fetus from potential toxics—eat organic foods, keep a dust-free home, avoid contact with chemicals in household products. The article clearly makes the case that toxics are impossible to avoid through personal choices but, as usual, throws the onus back on the individual to protect herself.

ARRRRG! Suggestions to avoid household cleaning products are simply insulting. And how many women can actually afford to eat organic food their entire pregnancy? Nice idea and everything, but there’s no way.

The point is that most of the potentially harmful exposures can’t be avoided because our chemical safety laws do not provide adequate protection. The choices we make together as a community—the standards we set for our water and air and food, and how our electricity is produced—are probably just as important to fetal health as our personal choices.

Some context would help. When you talk about brain-damaging mercury in the womb, shouldn’t you also talk about why mercury is there in the first place (like coal power plants—the number one source of mercury in our environment) and how we might limit its contamination of our bodies?

We insist that a pregnant woman make responsible personal choices for her baby—and declare anything less reckless and irresponsible. Shouldn’t we demand the same high standards for the community at large?

Phew! Thank you. Now that I’ve got that off my chest, here are some snippets from the CNN piece to get your blood boiling too:

  • Among hundreds of pregnant women who wore special backpacks for a Columbia Center for Children’s Environmental Health study to monitor the air they breathed (bless their hearts! As if being pregnant isn’t enough without schlepping a backpack around town!), 100 percent of the samples had detectable levels of at least one pesticide and other damaging air pollutants. The toxics measured in the backpack air samples matched what substances the scientists found in cord blood of the babies once they were born.
  • An Environmental Working Group study found an average of 232 chemicals in babies’ cord blood.
  • Dr. Phil Landrigan, a pediatrician and director of the Children’s Environmental Health Center at Mount Sinai School of Medicine, says: “For 80 percent of the common chemicals in everyday use in this country we know almost nothing about whether or not they can damage the brains of children, the immune system the reproductive system, and the other developing organs. It’s really a terrible mess we’ve gotten ourselves into.”
  • The Columbia Center for Children’s Environmental Health recently published a study demonstrating an association between the chemicals they found in babies’ cord blood, and later problems on IQ tests and development—at a level of 15 percent of the children in their study.

Plenty more of this kind of research can be found in previous posts in this series.

I didn’t watch it, but let’s hope CNN’s television special goes farther than the online article and looks not just to individuals but to crucial policy solutions—decisions we all make together—that are needed to begin in earnest to keep toxics out of our wombs and out of kids’ bodies.

P.S. As I fly off the handle again about all this stuff, I’m glad my colleague Lisa Stiffler’s post came out yesterday to offer a level-headed perspective on the same set of concerns. One big take-home from both our posts is that legislation like the Safe Chemicals Act of 2010 would help take the pressure off parents faced with myriad choices each and every day about how best to protect their kids.

Photocourtesy of Flickr user Trevor Bair under a Creative Commons license.