Since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution two-and-a-half centuries ago, man-made chemicals have accumulated in our air, our water, and our soil. Some toxic compounds naturally break down quickly to non-toxic components; many do not. The result is the fact that, today, toxic chemicals are ubiquitous; they are everywhere you are. For many years now, scientists, physicians, industries, and businesses have known plenty about their harmful effects on the adult body. Surprisingly, very little research has been done examining the effects of an increasingly polluted environment on children’s health. That is all beginning to change.
Two disturbing studies published last week should alert mothers and fathers everywhere, especially in areas of heavy industrialization (past, and very much present) in Southwestern Pennsylvania. Debbie Nicholson reviews the first study from Australia, published in the British Journal of Cancer, which concludes that a father’s occupational exposure to solvents, before and during pregnancy, increases the risk of brain cancer in their children:
The researchers found children whose father’s worked with chlorinated and petroleum-based solvents, such as those found in degreasers and cleaning chemicals, were at a higher risk of developing brain tumors.
Children born to father’s who worked with toluene or xylene—used in paint thinners, adhesives and lacquers—in the year before conception were four times as likely to develop a brain tumor.
Men who worked with benzene in the year before conception were twice as likely to have a child who developed a brain tumor.
Women working in occupations that expose them to a class of compounds called chlorinated solvents — found in degreasers, cleaning solutions, paint thinners, pesticides and resins — at any time in their lives also have a much higher risk of their child developing a brain tumour.
The names of some of these chemical solvents — benzene, toluene, xylene, trichloroethylene — should be familiar to anyone working in or living near oil and natural gas wells that are proliferating in Southwestern Pennsylvania. Lynne Peeples uses an exhaustive review article published this month in Reviews on Environmental Health to make a point:
The paper suggests that even tiny doses of benzene, toluene and other chemicals released during the various phases of oil and natural gas production, including fracking, could pose serious health risks — especially to developing fetuses, babies and young children.
“We hear a lot of anecdotal stories all the time,” said Dr. Sheila Bushkin-Bedient, of the Institute for Health and the Environment at University at Albany-SUNY and co-author on the paper, “but now that we’ve had a decade of opportunity to observe the ill effects from these chemicals on people and animals, the evidence is no longer just anecdotal.”
The second study, published in the peer-reviewed research journal PLOS One, implicates two very common man-made chemicals found in plastic products in damaging the developing fetus. Jessica Firger says phthalates — previously shown to increase the risk of asthma, insulin resistance and obesity, thyroid disease, and brain development in children, as well as preterm births — are ubiquitous in consumer products, and the new study shows they may affect a developing child’s intelligence:
The chemicals, Di-n-butyl phthalate (DnBP) and di-isobutyl phthalate (DiBP), are found in a wide range of products including vinyl upholstery, shower curtains, plastic food containers, raincoats, dryer sheets, lipstick, hairspray, nail polish, certain soaps and chemical air fresheners. The chemicals provide flexibility and durability to products. But they can be absorbed into a person’s body, and exposure in-utero was linked in the study to lower IQs later in a child’s life.
Firger provides a suggestion on how to lessen exposure:
The researchers recommend pregnant women take a number of measures to at least minimize risks. They suggest avoiding products with recyclable plastic that’s labeled with the numbers 3, 6 or 7.
If these two studies aren’t enough to make you stop and think, there was another study, also published last week in PLOS ONE, whose title is all you need to hear: “Plastic Pollution in the World’s Oceans: More than 5 Trillion Plastic Pieces Weighing over 250,000 Tons Afloat at Sea.”
Pediatrician and environmental medicine expert Jerry Paulson explains why developing children are more vulnerable than adults to environmental toxins:
In protecting children from environmental health hazards, it is essential to recognize that for many reasons children may be more exposed to environmental health hazards than adults in the same location. Moreover, children may have different outcomes than adults similarly exposed. For example, children breathe more air and drink more water per unit of body weight than adults do, Therefore, if the air or water are contaminated, the children will receive a higher dose than the adults. Children also live longer than adults. While that may seem self-evident, it is important in the environmental context because many outcomes of environmental exposures occur years after the exposure. If the delay between exposure and outcome is, for example, 40 years or more, as it may well be in terms of some of the chronic lung diseases of adulthood, if a 60 year old adult is exposed, s/he may not live long enough to develop the adverse outcome. A child, however, will, in all likelihood, live long enough to experience that adverse outcome.
We’re lucky enough to be living in a time when we’re learning about what causes many human diseases. While that might not help in new therapies, it will surely spark new modalities in prevention. We just need to open our eyes to all the new data, use our ears to listen to the science, and smell the air with our very own noses.
(Image: Nereus by Steven Hirsch — featureshoot.com — “Psychedelic Colors and Patterns Photographed on One of the Most Polluted Bodies of Water in America.”)