DURHAM — Surprising as it may seem, the umbilical cord blood of babies born today can have traces of industrial chemicals that were banned 30 years ago, a report says. Their bodies can absorb at least 287 toxic chemicals while they are still in the womb.
Ken Cook is president and co-founder of Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit research and advocacy group. He was in North Carolina last week and discussed results of blood tests his organization conducted in 2004 on 10 American babies.
According to Cook, the EWG test is the first to look at how chemicals used in everyday life affect fetuses, and it shows that industrial pollution begins in the womb.
Although these substances are present in the blood in minute levels, no research exists, he said, to show even small amounts aren't dangerous.
"Babies should not be born pre-contaminated," Cook said. "We must encourage our government to draft policies that require closer looks at the safety of these chemicals. We all need to be held accountable for fixing a broken [environmental health and safety] system."
Cook presented his findings in a lecture co-sponsored by Duke University's Nicholas School of the Environment and Earth Sciences and the Comprehensive Cancer Center. The partnership brings together researchers to study links between environmental pollution and public health.
The EWG test identified 212 chemicals and pesticides, including DDT; 28 waste byproducts produced by incinerators; and 47 other substances found in products containing nonstick surfaces such as Teflon or stain shields such as Scotchgard. Many contaminants are known carcinogens, are associated with birth defects, or can negatively affect hormones, Cook said.
Rebecca Fry, an assistant professor in environmental sciences and engineering at UNC Chapel Hill, said the EWG's study is an important first step, and it calls for larger studies to establish the relationship between environmental contaminants in newborn blood and health outcomes.
"Just because we can measure a chemical in our blood doesn't necessarily mean there will be a negative health outcome," Fry said. "It is essential that the government become a partner to foster more extensive research."
It is known that certain environmental contaminants contribute to problems such as low birth weight.
Christina McConnell, who is 24 weeks pregnant and has an 18-month-old son, said she was shocked by the number of chemicals found in cord blood and was concerned there is no foolproof way to avoid passing harmful chemicals to her unborn child.
"It's surprising that some of these chemicals could have a big impact even in such small amounts," she said.
"It's sad that we can't protect our families just by changing what we buy or eat and that we have to rely on the government to pass new policies."