Pollutants found in Newborns

Posted by Janet Harriett on Mar.13, 2010

ⓒ iStockPhoto - njgphoto

ⓒ iStockPhoto - njgphoto

The Environmental Working Group has released the first-ever study of chemicals in the cord blood of minority newborns. The ten babies in the study were born in 2007 and 2008 in California, Florida, Massachusetts, Michigan, Wisconsin. While the Centers for Disease Control and the Environmental Working Group  have both looked at newborn exposure before, the new EWG study, in partnership with Rachel’s Network, was the first to specifically look at African-America, Hispanic and Asian babies, who may be more likely to be exposed to industrial and agricultural chemicals due to social and economic situations. For example, in many areas of the country, agricultural laborers are predominantly Hispanic, exposing Hispanic women to more pesticides, herbicides and synthetic fertilizers before and during pregnancy.

The EWG study of cord blood contaminants in minority newborns is the first reported detection of nearly two dozen chemicals in newborns of any background, including the first neonatal detection of Bisphenol-A, which was found in 9 of the 10 babies. Because of the expense of testing, only 10 babies were included in the study. Up to 232 chemicals total were found in the ten infants - certain tests looked for two or more chemicals at once, and a positive reading could mean one or more of the contaminants were present in the sample. Several chemicals were found in all ten babies:

  • Lead - Heavy metal found in tapwater and older paint
  • Mercury - Elemental mercury pollution comes from coal-fired power plants and industrial processes; elemental mercury is also found in compact fluorescent lightbulbs and some thermometers.
  • Methylmercury - An organic form of mercury that accumulates in seafood.
  • Perfluorooctanoic acid and perfuorooctanesulfonate - Chemicals found in or byproducts of the breakdown of nonstick and stain-repellent coatings like Teflon, Scotchgard and the coating on some food wraps
  • Chlorinated doxins and furans - Flame retardants, exposure comes from air, food and water
  • Polybrominated diphenyl ether (PBDEs)- Flame retardants in common household products, which often find their way into household dust. Phased out of use in new products, but many homes still contain PDBE-containing products
  • Polychlorinated biphenyl ethers (PCBs) - Formerly used in paint, plastics, electronics and heat transfer equipment. PCBs can transfer through breast milk
  • Polychlorinated naphthalens (PCNs) - Wood preservative, varnish and machine lubricant. Only used in limited industrial applications now, the main source of PCNs is waste incineration

Other chemicals were found in only some of the tested babies. The cord blood contaminants in newborns study and other similar studies have demonstrated that newborns have, on average, more than 100 toxic chemicals in their bodies at birth. These chemicals affect the nervous, endocrine and immune systems, and have the potential to cause thyroid disorders and cancer. Little is known about how these chemicals may interact with one another.

Notably, many of the chemicals the EWG found have been banned or voluntarily discontinued, some for decades, yet the pollution persists in the environment, culminating in pollution of babies. Many of the chemicals enter a baby’s body through contaminated food, air or water, and some may even be passed on through breast milk after birth.

What the EWG Study Means for You

The EWG pollution in minority newborns study was smaller in scope than other examinations of neonatal and in-utero exposure, making it more difficult to extrapolate the results to the larger population of infants. The study specifically targeted Hispanic, Asian and African-American babies, since previous sociological research has indicated reasons to believe that minority babies have higher exposure to certain chemicals. Some of this increased exposure comes from poor neighborhoods, which have disproportionately large minority populations in many areas and are often near pollution sources such as waste processing facilities, and often have older fixtures that still contain recently-banned chemical pollutants like lead paint. The study did not collect demographic data on the babies other than their ethnic background, but research has shown that social factors tied to ethnicity and unrelated to economic status, such as more use of personal care products among African-American women, can also affect a baby’s prenatal exposure to toxins. More than alarming parents of all ethnicities about the levels of environmental toxins, the EWG study highlights the importance of considering disparate environments that pregnant mothers live in, and the how those differences impact their babies at birth and for the rest of their lives.

The study looked at a broader array of chemicals than other studies have. In the 11 studies of human chemical contamination that the EWG has performed to date, on people of all age ranges, they have tested for 414 contaminants, while the CDC’s studies of larger sample populations have reported on only 203 contaminants. The two types of mercury that the EWG tested for did not include the ethyl mercury found in thimerosal. The study provides a baseline for future exploration and demonstrates that more attention needs to be paid to the health issues of minority newborns, who may have more of these contaminants than average, and at higher levels due to socioeconomic factors that increase their exposure in the womb.

Protecting Your Family from Chemicals

The prevalence of some of these chemicals is certainly alarming, and the potential effects and interactions are even more so. Avoiding exposure to these chemicals entirely may not be possible, since some are persistent environmental pollutants, but we can minimize exposure to ourselves and our families, no matter what our ethnic background. Minimization may be more important when you’re pregnant, but many of these accumulate in our bodies long before. Starting babies off with a healthy uterine environment, and a healthy environment after birth, gets them started on the right foot. The Environmental Working Group offers suggestions for limiting exposure to these chemicals:

Eat Organic When Possible

Especially with the Dirty Dozen fruits and veggies, organic can reduce exposure to pesticides. Since many pollutants accrue in fatty tissues of animals, when choosing meat or dairy, organic can mitigate some of the risk, though organically-raised animals are still susceptible to the ambient chemical contamination from air and water, and wild-caught fish can still have high mercury levels from environmental pollution.

Filter Your Water

Filtered tapwater is less expensive than bottled, and bottled water may not be of any higher quality than what comes out of your tap, unfiltered. Even a basic countertop pitcher with a carbon filter can get rid of many contaminants, and reverse osmosis filtering can reduce exposure even more. Formula-fed babies should always have their formula mixed with filtered water. According to the EWG, a carbon filter is sufficient in areas that don’t fluoridate water; in areas that fluoridate, a reverse osmosis filter will remove the added fluoride.

Dust and Vacuum

Many chemicals shed from household products, such as electronics insulators and foam bits, end up concentrated in household dust. More are tracked in on shoes. Babies spend a lot of time on the ground where this dust and its chemical load accumulates. Frequent vacuuming with a HEPA filter vacuum and dusting with damp rags or a microfiber cloth removes this dust rather than spreading it around the house. Avoid using dusting products, which aren’t necessary and add more chemicals to the interior environment. Green Diva Mom has more tips for keeping your indoor air quality up.

Choose Personal Care Products Carefully

Some of the chemicals found in the infants are commonly used in personal care products and fragrances, and marketing terms like “natural” or “organic” (without a certified organic seal) don’t mean a product is safe or healthy. allows you to assess the safety of your personal care products.

Minimize Flame Retardants

Fire retardants are commonly found in foam furniture and electronics, giving you one more reason to keep your baby from teething on the remote. Foams made after 2004 probably don’t have PBDEs, so newer furniture, mattresses and car seats are a safer bet. Fire retardant pajamas aren’t treated with PBDEs, but synthetic fabrics may have other impregnated fire retardants. To err on the safe side, choose natural fiber jammies like cotton.

Avoid Plastics, and Choose Safer Ones

Recyclable 3 and 7, as well as PVC may have phthalates or BPA. Recyclables 1, 2, 4 and 5 are safer if you can’t use an inert container like glass or ceramic. Bottle-feeding parents can look for clear silicone nipples for BPA-free bottles. EWG recommends frozen washcloths over vinyl teething rings.

Ditch the Nonstick Cookware

Nonstick cookware coating like Teflon is the major source of one of the ubiquitous chemicals in the EWG study, and also poses environmental and workplace hazards during manufacture. At high temperatures, nonstick coatings can outgas toxic fumes, and the coating itself can get nicked and flake into the food. Wiser cookware choices include stainless steel or home-seasoned cast iron, and glass bakeware.

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Posted under GDM Baby, GDM News & Politics, Green Cleaning, Living.

Article By: Janet Harriett

Janet Harriett

Profile: Janet Harriett, Green Diva Mom's fomer editor, has been a writer and editor for print and online media, specializing in education and environmental issues since 1999. She lives on 2 acres in central Ohio with her husband, a 275-square-foot backyard garden and a home orchard growing 25 varieties of fruit. Janet holds a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in Creative Writing.


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