Sensoria

The sensory dimensions of art and culture

Unlikely Things Found in Babies and on Mountain Tops

Chemical pollutants, children, the environment, our future

In December 2009 I read an incredible study—one that seemed, at the time, like it could even be fictional. A chemical waste site was found, and it was found in a most unlikely place: a mother’s womb.

During gestation and infancy humans are extremely vulnerable. They have yet to develop sufficient immune defenses. Knowing this, the adults of our species protect the health of newborns. When a baby is born in the United States the infant’s health screening usually includes tests for defects in hearing, blood disorders, endocrine disorders, and metabolic disorders. However, two environmental protection organizations, The Environmental Working Group (EWG) and Rachel’s Network, thought other tests should be done. Researchers at five different laboratories were commissioned to analyze the umbilical cord blood of ten American babies born in 2009 and found more than 200 man-made toxic substances in each baby at the time of birth. This study found compounds from computer circuit boards, Teflon, cosmetics, plastics, flame-retardants, and synthetic fragrances circulating in their blood.

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The President’s Cancer Panel reported: “to a disturbing extent, babies are born ‘pre-polluted’” (2010). The early stages of life no longer take place in the somewhat pristine environment commonly believed to be the modern womb. Fetuses now develop in the midst of hundreds of synthetic chemicals flooding the womb via the placenta. Concentrations of synthetic chemicals start to build before birth. The expectant mother bioaccumulates high loads of man-made chemicals from her surrounding environment. These high loads of chemical bioaccumulation may be tolerated by an adult but can cause irreparable damage to a developing fetus. No matter how a mother protects her unborn child, she can’t protect them from direct and indirect exposure to the ever-present toxic substances in our environment.

After reading about these babies—being a mother myself—I started researching and collecting studies monitoring synthetic chemicals in the environment. I found many significant peer-reviewed articles in various scientific journals that detail the persistence of ingredients in healthcare, home and personal care products (including five classes of synthetic musk fragrances, parabens, phthalates, pharmaceuticals, antimicrobials, insect repellents, flame retardants, plastics and Bisphenol found in water, air, sediment, sewage sludge aquatic biota, wildlife and humans).

Petrochemical compounds had been detected in human blood and the environment as early as the 1950s. The daunting global evidence mounting this decade has brought chemical safety and indiscriminate use of chemicals into question. In the United States, a 2005 survey study published in Chemosphere reported the occurrence of polycyclic musk—artificial aromatic compounds made to emulate the scent of deer musk—in water, in humans, and in wildlife. That same year researchers in Guangdong, China found high concentrations of polycyclic musk in six different sewage treatment plants in China. In 2007, researchers in Romania found pharmaceuticals and toxic personal care compounds along the Somes River watershed. Researchers in Prague reported, in the Archives of Environmental Contamination and Toxicology, high levels of synthetic musk fragrances. In 2008 synthetic musk fragrances were found in the Pearl River Delta and the Macao costal region and were correlated to the degradation of the region. In 2009, researchers in Beijing measured higher magnitudes of polycyclic musk in three treatment plants than that of Guangdong. This is only a sampling.

In 2007, synthetic chemical compounds were identified in beautiful and pristine areas of the polar-regions. An article, published in Environmental Science and Technology, reported air-sea fluxes of the synthetic polycyclic musk fragrances Galazolide (HHCB) and Tonalide (AHTN) measured in both the Arctic and North Sea. The data was clear: for decades humans and wildlife have been exposed through ingestion, breath, and skin to a variety of endocrine disruptors: chemicals that interfere with the hormone system by deregulating hormone release or causing a faulty signaling response. These disruptors are everywhere. The big concern? We don’t know at what concentrations the prevalence of these synthetic chemicals can tip the scale toward diseases like cancer. Although, we are beginning to find out.

I was partially struck by a Swiss study, published in Environmental Science and Technology in 2009, that found melting Alpine glaciers (due to global warming) were releasing an array of toxic compounds into Lake Oberaar. The researchers learned that glaciers are persistent sources of pollutants. They carry and preserve chemicals and rerelease them as they melt. These chemicals gather inside the glaciers over time and at different levels; the levels are proportionally reflected by the emission history of the compounds. Christian Bogdal et al., hypothesized that, “Considering ongoing global warming and accelerated massive glacier melting predicted for the future, our study indicates the potential for dire environmental impacts due to pollutants delivered into pristine mountainous areas.”

Does this prediction regarding glaciers have anything to do with pre-polluted infants?

This past June a new report from the Environmental Defense Canada found 137 different toxic chemicals in three different babies from the Toronto and Hamilton area. Blood from umbilical cord samples were tested for 310 chemicals and as many as 55 to 121 were detected in each child. It was reported that 132 compounds are known to cause cancer in humans and animals; 110 are toxic to the brain and nervous system; 133 cause developmental and reproductive problems in mammals. Some of the chemicals found in these babies were banned decades ago but continue to persist in humans and wildlife—just as they persist in natural environments like glaciers—and will continue to persist into future generations.

There is high evidence that chemicals like Bisphenol A, Phthalates, and the atmospheric pollutant polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon are hormone disrupting agents that cripple the endocrine system. The hormone disruptors affect the development of the nervous system in children. A large group of new studies are finding there are long-term consequences of exposure to these chemicals on the developing brain of babies in the womb and in early years, causing learning disabilities, attention deficit disorders, hyperactivity or cognitive brain development problems. New evidence shows that pesticides not only cause IQ deficits and ADHD, it interferes with the brain’s sexual development.

Evidence continues to mount that some synthetic musk fragrances, like musk xylene compounds and musk ketone compounds, found in almost all consumer products but especially perfumes, shampoos, body lotions, and deodorants, are also endocrine disrupting compounds. In 2001, a German study published in the International Journal of Hygiene and Environmental Health, confirmed nitro musk compounds are stored in human fatty tissue and in breast milk. This was after 1998 studies found them in fresh water fish of Italian lakes and rivers. A 2004 study, published in Environmental Science and Technology, found that synthetic musk fragrances bioaccumulate and have both estrogenic and antiestrogenic effects on fish.

How did it happen that nearly 800 chemicals in the commercial marketplace are known or suspected to cause endocrine related disorders? In the United States, by way of the Toxic Substances Control Act, chemicals are innocent until proven guilty, which results in 80,000 manufactured chemicals being released into the environment without their chemical toxicity being known by the public.

When thinking of purity one might imagine beautiful babies radiating joy or pristine snowy mountaintops. After all, what is more pure than the hope carried with new life or the wilderness untouched by the human hand? I posit a better question, however: What could possibly be more vulnerable?

The environment of the womb and the environment of our world are expressions of the same universal reality. The physical world is far too polluted with man-made chemicals. It’s hard to comprehend what we have done to the biology of the most helpless members of our species as well the betrayals committed against our fragile biosphere. Healthy babies and unpolluted landscapes are archaic illusions in our new reality. But we cannot let this be.

This year, the most comprehensive report to date on endocrine disrupting chemicals and human health problems was jointly published by the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) and the World Health Organization (WHO): State of the science of endocrine disrupting chemicals – 2012. UN Under Secretary-General and UNEP Executive Director Achim Steiner, an advocate for the world’s transition to a green economy said, “Chemical products are increasingly part of modern life and support many national economies, but the unsound management of chemicals challenges the achievement of key development goals, and sustainable development for all.”

As we continue to monitor the mega tons of these compounds dumped into the world each year and identify the levels of hormone disrupting compounds in the water, sludge, biota and air, we are studying our fate. Curving environment pollution will require an approach of holistic stewardship to all pharmaceutical, personal care and home products. This means eliminating dangerous chemicals from nonessential uses, investigating the effects of chemicals before they are mass released, and being more frugal with the essential chemicals we do have to use.

We need to consider the time-bomb message written by the international experts who wrote the report: “Because only a small fraction of the hundreds of thousands of synthetic chemicals in existence have been assessed for endocrine disrupting activity, and because many chemicals in consumer products are not identified by the manufacturer, we have only looked at the “tip of the iceberg.”

Copyright © 2013 by Gayil Nalls

 

 

 

Gayil Nalls, Ph.D., is an interdisciplinary artist based in New York.

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