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Babies are polluted at birth, new report says

There are more than 80,000 chemicals on the market today, but only about 200 of them have been tested for safety. That’s because the Environmental Protection Agency can only require safety testing after there is proof that a substance poses a health risk under the Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976 — the only major environmental regulation that has not been updated. Only five chemicals have been regulated since the law was enacted. As for getting rid of a dangerous substance — well, under the 1976 law, the EPA wasn’t even able to successfully ban asbestos, a known carcinogen.

A new report by the President’s Cancer Panel is calling for a major shift in how we regulate thousands of new chemicals that are introduced each year. The report says that children are far more susceptible than adults to being harmed by exposure to environmental toxins, even before they are born. Need to Know’s Laura LeBlanc talked with Dr. Leo Trasande, co-director of Mount Sinai’s Children’s Environmental Health Center, about why children are at special risk.

Laura LeBlanc: There was a pretty dramatic statement in this report that said babies are born “pre-polluted.” Why are fetuses, newborns and children at special risk?

Dr. Leo Trasande: There are a number of reasons why developing organs and especially children are at risk to chemical exposures. One is pound-for-pound, they drink more water, they breathe in more air, they eat more food … Another reason is that their organs are just developing, and subtle changes can have permanent consequences that can’t be fixed after the fact. You can’t press rewind and rerecord on a child’s development, whether it’s the brain, the lungs, the blood cells or any other system in the body. They also have more years in life in which to develop diseases as a result of subtle changes that result from chemical exposure.

LeBlanc: How are babies born with chemicals already in their body?

Trasande: Unfortunately, while the placenta is a great protector and there are systems in place in the mother to protect the child from chemical exposures during the prenatal period, the fact remains that for certain chemicals, the placenta can be a sieve and children can end up being a sink for certain chemicals. That’s very well documented for the chemical methylmercury that is linked to adverse impact on fetal brain development. Subsequently studies have identified in the order of 200 chemicals, the ones that we can detect in laboratory studies … those 200 have been detected consistently, almost universally in children just out of the womb. And I’m not saying all those 200 chemicals are linked to all these cancers, but it’s what little we know about a suite of chemicals within that 200 that’s cause for concern.

LeBlanc: What kind of impact do you think this report might have on the push to tighten up those regulations?

Trasande: There have been multiple wars on cancer — they’ve taken different elements of the campaign and focused on them in varying degree. I don’t think prevention has gotten quite the focus that it deserves and clearly toxic substances … reform is a major element of prevention, not just of certain cancers but a host of chronic diseases which are a major cause of morbidity in the United States. I think this could clearly push the accelerator on efforts to reform how chemicals are regulated in the United States.

LeBlanc: There has been some press coverage suggesting the report is alarmist, or overstating the case. Based on your work and your expertise, do you think that is a valid concern?

Trasande: The President’s Cancer Panel is not blaming all cancers on chemical exposures. It’s certainly not saying that every chemical is toxic even at the lowest dose. But what it is saying, however, is that there is an increasing amount of evidence to support the role of environmental chemicals in chronic diseases, especially cancer, and I think that’s very fair and balanced … Hopefully this report will [spur] a paradigm shift towards a broader recognition of the environment and chemical exposure, and their role in these chronic diseases.

LeBlanc: What do you think people need to know about this report? What should they take away from this?

Trasande: I think they should take away an awareness that chemical exposures are a concern that they should look at more carefully. That doesn’t mean that one has to put oneself in a bubble and limit their exposure to every chemical … under the sun. There are some safe and simple steps that a family can [take] to limit exposure to chemicals in the environment. They can make sure their home doesn’t have lead-based paint hazards, they can limit their consumption of methylmercury in some fish, they can eat organic, they can limit spraying pesticides in homes, they can have their home tested for radon, they can make sure their water supply isn’t contaminated by arsenic … there has been a great deal of technological progress in the last 20 years — I’m not trying to roll that back. But what we do have to understand is that we don’t have to have technological progress at the expense of human life, or at the expense of disease and disability.

Related story: The dirty dozen and clean 15 of produce



  • Lori Chen

    One area of concern is not included in this report. Non organic farming may not always result in chemical residues in the food but it always affects the people who are exposed to the chemicals when there are applied and when the chemicals remain in the air , soil , and water. For this reason organic methods are less detrimental to public health as well as environmental integrity.

  • Bill Stenwick

    What about all the people, including my wife, who have multiple chemical sensitivities, and whose lives have been ruined by exposure to chemicals in use every day in public washrooms, supermarkets and homes across the country. You never hear anything about this problem.

  • David
  • Dawn W

    While I agree there are far too many chemicals being used today in our day to day lives and I believe these man-made chemicals have a much high risk to our health than any government agency would like the consumers to know about, my question is this: in this day and age in our society there is NO way to keep yourself 100% chemical-free (from our food to our cleaning products both personal and household to our clothing and even the air we breathe outside) everywhere you turn there are chemicals staring you in the face just like germs! How do you decide which chemicals are okay to be in contact with and which ones should send you running for the hills? Even someone living in a bubble still comes in contact with chemicals form their food, clothing, & even their bubble is man-made from products containing chemicals. Someone help me understand what I should and should not be afraid off before I end up with some form of OCD…

  • Sarah

    I agree with Dawn. Since the birth of my son, I’ve tried so hard to decrease the toxins in our home…organic foods, cleansers, toys, etc…only to be completely frustrated at the whole process. For instance, I bought a case of organic tomato sauce (in cans) thinking it was healthier for me to make my own sauce than to purchase the non-organic, HFCS packed commercial brands. Now I find out the cans are lined with BPA! I’m going to end up with OCD as well!

  • Aaron B.

    EVERYTHING is made of chemicals. “Natural” and “Organic” do not always translate to “safe”. There are many natural/organic substances that are highly toxic, and many synthetic substances that are non-toxic. The truth is that it would be impossible to know 100% which ones to avoid, but as this article points out, we need tighter regulation on the chemicals being used for industrial purposes.

  • Valina

    I know it is hard to keep up with all the data and information and be sure you are doing the right thing for your children. I have been frustrated too. Basically the way I think about it is to get rid of the highly caustic chemicals like chlorine, bleach, phosphates and formaldahyde in all cleaning and personal products, since I am pretty anal about cleanliness. I have found Dishwashing detergent that does not use these chemicals I mentioned. I have found household cleaning agents that use naturally derived agents to clean. With all the research linking caustic chemicals to behavioral issues, I feel this is important. These are not regulated because they do not think these things are absorbed through the skin. We only buy what we need to keep cost down and that goes for food as well.
    Keep up the fight to do what is right. Your efforts will payoff.

  • Kathy Dolan

    Laura, I was glad to see this piece on the dangers of multiple exposures. Right now, I am working to ban triclosan, a pesticide in thousands of consumer care products. To learn more about the work that I do at Food &Water Watch, please visit:

  • Thermoguy

    Health discussion on toxic newborns reminds me of BP telling us they have everything under control in the Gulf Oil Leak. Sewage and waste water treatment are not designed to catch chemicals so they all downstream into the oceans while our toxic poop is used on our agriculture.

    Anything foreign to your body is a toxin and your body attacks it, unfortunately the fetus is unprotected. Do you know what the toxicity ratio was in polluted newborns? All of them and the study by the Environmental Working Group was completed on US babies. Doctors I work with stated discussions where babies would be in a 911 crisis from conception and they don’t have cancer at 10, they have had it for 10 years and nine months. Further amazing to hear that humans have reproductive problems.

    What happens when we have a 100% toxicity ratio and reproductive problems as a species? The tests were done on umbilical cords of moms who don’t work in hazardous industry.

    Mr Obama has said that health costs will bankrupt the US Government, the reality is all of us toxic and medicine reacting to the symptoms with drugs(toxins) treating symptoms will compound the issue. It should be a national security issue. Industry(all of them) should upgrade waste water treatment to catch their toxic discharge, it isn’t legal to poison for profit.

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    Vital information everyone should have concern with for longer more healthy life. 

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  • Jenn

    Looking to the doctors in farming communities and you will see doctors who are all well versed in cancer patients. Well water for farms and surrounding houses is often contaminated and rarely tested. The only one regulating safety for you is YOU. Make sure you become educated and make choices that will benefit your family.

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  • Smyth Jesson

    What I took away from this important toxin story by about toxins with Dr. Leo Trasande, co-director of Mount Sinai’s Children’s Environmental Health Center, about why children are at special risk, is confirmation of what we are teaching in Ayurvedic Perfect Health, the Chopra Way. People are walking around only half alive because their cells are so polluted. It is time to PURIFY cleanse. – Jilly Jesson Smyth, CTA, Master’s Study Ayurveda

  • Guest

    I wanted to add that formaldehyde and aluminum, two very toxic ingredients, are in vaccines. The government and pharma are pushing to have pregnant women get the flu shot, sometimes two- H1N1 and the regular flu shot. Then there is the Hep B and Vit K shots that infants receive on their first day of life. Thirty six vaccines total by the time an infant is school age. Over fifty percent of children have a chronic illness and 1 in 5 children have a neurological disorder. Children are sicker than any generation in history..

  • Regina Valluzzi

    You might want to look into getting a small steam cleaner. Steam can dissolve most dirt and grease – no chemicals needed. With a tiny amount of mild soap it works even more wonders.

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