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As EPA shifts stance on chemicals, understudied toxins pose growing threat to children’s health

As EPA shifts stance on chemicals, understudied toxins pose growing threat to children’s health

Picture of Katharine Gammon
[Photo by Peter Organisciak via Flickr.]

In March 2017, the Environmental Protection Agency decided to reject a decade-old petition to ban chlorpyrifos, a widely used pesticide that research suggests may cause developmental delays in children exposed to it in drinking water or in farming communities. It’s just one of many toxins children today are exposed to — and much of the research on the effects of these substances is just now emerging.

According to the EPA, chlorpyrifos is the most used conventional insecticide in the U.S., with roughly 6 million pounds applied on around 10 million acres between 2009 and 2013. Farmers rely on it to keep insects from eating more than 50 types of crops.

The pesticide has also found its way into our bodies: A 2012 study found that chlorpyrifos was in the umbilical cord blood of 87 percent of newborn babies tested. People can be exposed to the chemical by eating food that has been sprayed, or by direct exposure — a risk for those living near crop fields.

Some of the strongest research suggesting that chlorpyrifos adversely affects children and fetuses comes from the Columbia Center for Children’s Environmental Health at Columbia University. Virginia Rauh, deputy director of the Columbia Center, has studied the pesticide intensively. To do so, she relied on blood samples collected from the umbilical cords of mothers right after giving birth in order to measure the levels of chlorpyrifos directly. Other correlation studies found associations between chlorpyrifos and birth weight or gestational age, and in some cases, links to children’s cognitive ability and ADHD-type symptoms.

As alarming as that research may be, the threat of such toxins to children’s health goes way beyond chlorpyrifos.

Bruce Lanphear, a health sciences professor at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, British Columbia who studies early childhood exposure, points out that many countries have made some progress in getting toxins out of children’s bodies. In general, exposure to lead, DDT, and some phthalates have come down. “There are facets of progress,” Lanphear said. “But at the same time, the old toxic chemicals are replaced with new chemicals that are just less studied.”

He points out that there are around 3,000 chemicals that are widely used today — a figure that is increasing, and impossible to fully study. “It is quite daunting to think about it and even figure out how to reduce exposure, particularly under Trump — but even before.”

For example, BPA — a phthalate — was banned in baby products, but it’s been shown that exposures to a fetus in utero are the most damaging — not exposures during infancy, said Lanphear. “It was somehow reassuring to the public to remove these products from baby products, even though that is not the most susceptible period of time.”

In other cases, Gore-Tex and Teflon-type chemicals are associated with some cardiometabolic problems and even obesity in children. It’s akin to running a giant, uncontrolled experiment. “We’ve been exposed to a whole host of the other chemicals but we can’t study them until now,” Lanphear said.

Lanphear offers a few rules of thumb. First off: If we didn’t evolve with it, avoid it. “What’s happened is that we have heavily contaminated our communities and therefore our bodies with these elements,” he said. For many years, scientists believed these chemicals found in our body were at levels too low to be of any consequence.

And yet, Lanphear says, when scientists start to look at concentrations in children and pregnant women, the amounts are in the same range as therapeutic doses for biologically active drugs.

“We’ve gone through a paradigm shift in our understanding, but because the chemical industry and corporations are so powerful, we haven’t evolved,” he said. “We’re stuck back in the 1980s or 1990s in the way we regulate.”

[Photo by Peter Organisciak via Flickr.]

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