Not-so-special delivery

Sometimes the toxic waste is not just in babies’ diapers.

THE SAMPLES REVIEWED BY RESEARCHERS AT THE WASHINGTON-BASED Environmental Working Group contained on average more than 200 contaminants. Among them mercury, gasoline, waste by-products from coal and garbage burning, toxic traces of eight petroleum-based chemicals, carcinogenic residue from dozens of widely used flame retardants, pesticides, and much more.

Of the 287 chemicals detected in the samples, 180 caused cancer, 217 were neurotoxins, and 208 caused birth defects in animal tests. It may sound as if the EWG had uncovered a serious chemical catastrophe, but it's not likely the Environmental Protection Agency will add the samples' point of origin to its Superfund list.

This "site" isn't a stewing brownfield left behind after a factory demolition or an illegal dump near a chemical plant. The EWG report was based on the testing of umbilical cord blood from 10 infants born in the United States last year. This contamination runs through the bloodstreams of America's newborns.

"These 10 newborn babies . . . were born polluted," said Rep. Louise Slaughter (D-NY) at a press conference at the release of the study in July. It had been presumed that the placenta protected fetuses from the daily assault of pollutants their moms are exposed to. The EWG's report came as a sobering surprise. "If ever we had proof that our nation's pollution laws aren't working," said Slaughter, "it's reading the list of industrial chemicals in the bodies of babies who have not yet lived outside the womb."

According to the study: "Now we know that at this critical time when organs, vessels, membranes, and systems are knit together from single cells to finished form in a span of weeks, the umbilical cord carries not only the building blocks of life, but also a steady stream of industrial chemicals, pollutants, and pesticides that cross the placenta as readily as residues from cigarettes and alcohol."

After years of media exposÚs and new research on fetal development, we have all become acquainted with the dangers of alcohol and tobacco use during pregnancy, and most pregnant women have responded accordingly. Should we be adding Teflon pans, pesticide-soaked lawns, and our plastic-laden lifestyles to the list of must-avoids for mothers?

The EWG refers to the chemical load lurking in the cord blood as the "body burden" each American newborn is forced to bear when they come into the modern world, but it is one we all share. Each day we swim in an ocean of industrial pollutants, a swirling, invisible chemical-rich cloud, spewing into our atmosphere from factories and power plants and leaching out of the hundreds of products "progress" has concocted to create a life of convenience and ease. There are more than 75,000 chemicals in commercial use in the U.S. Many of them have never been evaluated to assess their impact on human health.

By now, we've all come to take for granted the Tupperware, Teflon, Styrofoam, fast-food packaging, and plastic children's toys that litter our streets, family rooms, stovetops, and refrigerators. But no one told us all that plasticine convenience comes at a price. Would we still opt for it if we knew its true costs?

A handful of u.s. legislators are currently crafting new laws meant to make it harder for toxic chemicals to leach into our daily lives, but truly reducing our exposure will mean making prudential judgments of our own: foregoing pesticides on our lawns, rethinking how we use plastics and pans in our kitchens, and more. If our bodies truly are the temples of the Holy Spirit, it's crowded enough in there without adding an extra body burden of industrial sludge.

Beyond changing our own habits, however, it's only fair to require American manufacturers to stop treating the consuming public as test rats for their latest synthetic breakthroughs. Rather than waiting years for the presentation of neurological disorders and assorted ailments and cancers to indicate a product's unsuitability for consumer use, why don't we require that new products be proven safe before they are disseminated throughout our lives and bloodstreams?

That might prevent the next big thing from hitting the store shelves as quickly as manufacturers might like, but it would also keep the next toxic thing from finding its way into our bodies—and our babies.

Kevin Clarke is senior editor at U.S. Catholic and managing editor of online products at Claretian Publications. This article appeared in the October 2005 (Volume 70, Number 10; page 41) issue of U.S. Catholic.

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