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Wednesday, April 2, 2008 02:40 pm

Chemical reaction

Study of unborn babies prompts call for tougher environmental laws

Untitled Document Unborn babies face a greater threat from pollution than once thought, says a new study by the Environmental Working Group, a leading nonprofit public-health-advocacy organization based in Washington, D.C. The study found 287 different carcinogens, consumer-product ingredients, and other chemicals in the umbilical-cord blood of 10 anonymous American babies born between August and September 2004. Ken Cook, founder and president of the EWG, says that although pollution in the air, water, and land has been examined for decades, this study has revealed for the first time the real danger of prenatal exposure to industrial pollution. “Before this study, to a large degree, medical experts and scientists believed that the placenta shielded babies in the womb from a lot of these chemicals by filtering them out,” Cook says. “Our study showed that’s not the case.”
On Tuesday, Cook visited Springfield to present EWG’s “10 Americans” before the environmental-health committee of the Illinois General Assembly. He met with Illinois Times briefly beforehand to talk about the implications of the research findings and about what needs to change. The major concern, he says, is that many of the chemicals identified in the babies’ umbilical-cord blood have toxic properties that may be linked to such rising health problems as cancer and autism. He argues against the rationale that better diagnosis has driven up statistics. Instead, he says, increased exposure to environmental toxins may be triggering an increased number of health defects. “We’ve just begun to study this phenomenon, which is in itself shocking,” Cook says. “Eighty years into the chemical revolution, we’re only now beginning to examine what chemicals end up in us.”
Cook has begun lobbying state and federal legislators to introduce more rigorous screening processes for industrial chemicals such as fire retardants, personal-care products, and the agents found in food-can liners before they are allowed on the market. The EWG’s main goal is to modernize the federal Toxic Substances Control Act, he says, which hasn’t been updated since 1976 and doesn’t impose basic safety standards. “If you bring a new pesticide onto the market, they have nearly 120 safety studies before it’s approved,” Cook says. “That’s because a lot of those chemicals that end up on food will end up in us.”
“But industrial chemicals also end up in us,” he adds, “and there are no mandatory studies.”

Contact Amanda Robert at arobert@illinoistimes.com.
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