Online Exclusives

Chemicals and Children

December 1, 2008

Panel discussion urges greater attention on the impact of common chemicals on children.


Chemicals and Children

Panel discussion urges greater attention on the impact of common chemicals on children.

By Joanna Cosgrove
Online Editor

A panel discussion featuring representatives from the Environmental Working Group (EWG) and Seventh Generation, a manufacturer of healthy household and personal care products, recently postulated on the long-term impacts of household chemicals on children, the importance of consumer product ingredient disclosure and the need for improved legislation. Parents and caretakers, children, healthcare providers and academics alike received practical information about creating a healthy home for their children. The presentation hinged on a controversial EWG study conducted two years ago on 10 Americans.

One sample of blood was collected from each subject and tested for 413 toxic chemicals. On average, 200 industrial chemicals and pollutants were found, including 28 waste byproducts, 47 consumer product ingredients (including Teflon and Scotch Guard) and 212 industrial chemicals and pesticides, such as PCBs and DDT, which were banned more than 30 years ago, yet persist in the environment.

During her presentation, Jane Houlihan, EWG’s vice president of research, said that the 10 Americans tested might have been exposed to the chemicals by air, as 1.4 billion pounds of 650 pollutants were discharged into the air in 2006. They might have been exposed through their tap water, where according to utility and government tests, there are more than 1000 contaminants in tap water nationwide. They might also have been exposed through pollutants in food, where there are more than 1,050 additives from food packaging end up in the foods we eat.  

The effect of personal care product chemicals was also examined. Ms. Houlihan said women use an average of 12 products a day with 168 unique ingredients, and men use fewer but there are still 85 ingredients in the six average products used everyday.

“But we know these Americans weren’t exposed by virtue of where the lived, what they did everyday, or on the job,” she said. The blood, she explained, was drawn from umbilical cord blood, taken at the moment of birth. “These are chemicals that crossed the mother’s placenta from mother to child that contaminated these children, even before birth.”

For the purpose of this study, the EWG partnered with the Red Cross, which collected the umbilical cord blood samples drawn from 10 babies across the country. The samples were tested at labs across the country.

“Our study shows that industrial pollution begins in the womb,” asserted Ms. Houlihan. “At this stage of life, there’s not a complete barrier between the blood and the brain to filter out chemicals like there is for an adult. For these babies, their brains are awash in blood and in the pollutants that are in that blood. This is a time of life when these babies are at the most vulnerable stage that they’ll ever be in to toxic chemical exposure. Their brains are developing, their hormone systems are developing and their sexual development is being determined. Everything would tell you that we need to protect these babies from toxic chemicals but everything that we know says we don’t.”

Of the chemicals discovered in the umbilical cord blood, 134 were linked to cancer, 151 were linked to birth defects, 154 were disruptive to the developing hormone system, 186 were linked to infertility, 130 that were toxic to the immune system and 158 were neurotoxins.

The EWG spent $10,000 to test each sample and Ms. Houlihan insisted that if they’d tested for more chemicals, they’d have found them.

 “There are 82,000 chemicals approved for use in the US. There are about 15,000 used in high volume. Would we have found 1,000? 6,000? No one knows but in a lot of ways, it’s already too late,” she said. “The chemical industry is not that fond of ‘body burden’ or ‘bio-monitoring’ research like we’ve conducted, where you’re not just looking for pollution in soil, water or air, you’re looking for pollution in people. The manufacturers of these chemical are quick to say, ‘Well the doses are really quite low, after all we’re finding them in blood at parts per billion levels …so surely these doses are too low to matter’ and that’s a question I want to explore.”

She went on to question whether the chemical doses were “too low.” Among the chemicals found in one baby’s blood were Badge-4OH (97.5 ppb) and PFCs (45 ppb) and although the amounts found seem miniscule, Ms. Houlihan pointed out that 30 ppb of the pharmaceuticals Cialis and Paxil are required to be effective; and just 2.1 ppb of Albuterol are needed for the drug to be effective.

“Drugs are designed to have profound effects at very low doses [and] chemical companies aren’t required to test their products at these doses to understand at all what the effects might be,” she said. “Chemicals can have profound effects on the human body. We’re seeing major changes in disease and health that genetics alone can’t explain. We know our genetics aren’t changing that rapidly to account for the changes in our health that are occurring across the population.”

Physiological Effects

Ms. Houlihan offered statistics underscoring that many types of birth defects have been on the rise in the US. Among the statistics she pointed to were incidences of hypospadias, a birth defect of the penis, have doubled from 1968 to 1993, with one of every 125 baby boys now requiring surgery. Cryptorchidism (undescended testicles) affects three percent of full term baby boys and it rose rapidly beginning in the 1970s. There’s been a 62% increase in acute lymphocytic leukemia in children from 1973-1999, as well as a 40% increase in childhood brain cancer form 1973-1994. Incidences of autism now stand at one in 150 children, 60% of which are boys. One out of every 15 children aged five to 17 has ADHD.

She also noted that fertility problems have become more prevalent, with problems relating to conception and carrying to term increasing 20% in the past 10 years, and the U.S. ranks first with a 17.7% risk of cancer before age 65.

She summarized her presentation by citing a quote from the journal Lancet: “The combined evidence suggests that neurodevelopmental disorders caused by industrial chemicals has created a silent pandemic in modern society.” (Lancet, Nov 8, 2006)

Dr. Alan Greene, a renowned pediatrician and author, was also part of the discussion group panel and spoke about the dangers of toxic chemicals from a physician’s point of view. He began by noting that one of the main childproofing techniques advised by pediatricians is to lock up household chemicals.

“Every year, Poison Control centers across our country get about 200,000 calls about exposure to household products that contain dangerous chemicals…despite our best intentions to keep them locked up,” he said. “There is no reason we need those chemicals in our homes. As Jane pointed out, if it is in our home, it’s going to be in our bodies.”

He called the epidemic of asthma “the single biggest chronic illness in children today” and explained that although wheezing, bronchial swelling and mucus are the body’s normal, protective reaction when confronted with toxic fumes, the condition known as asthma occurs in people who can’t help wheezing, even when they shouldn’t be.

Dr. Greene explained that a primary cause that tilts a person from having a normal response to asthma is chronic exposure to low levels of toxic chemicals. “It just makes their airways twitchy and always on guard,” he said.

He went on to cite that the most common chemical fumes that people are exposed originate from petroleum products—Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs). He asserted that the fumes concentrated inside one’s home can be more toxic than living across the street from an oil refinery because of the chemicals—household cleaners, paint, etc.—create and “ongoing toxic aroma, even when used as directed,” he said.

“There are links between cleaning product use during pregnancy and asthma in kids.”

Changing Legislation

Ms. Houlihan said that although everyone can take simple steps to cut down their risk of chemical exposure, “there’s only so much we can do to shop our way out of this problem.”

“Most people in the United States believe that if you see something on a store shelf, the government must have approved it as safe. They believe there’s a safety net for the chemicals in our homes. But it’s not there,” commented Dr. Greene. “They do not have to test these chemicals for safety before putting them on the market. No independent testing required whatsoever for most of these chemicals. And most of the chemicals in use have not been tested.”

The added problem to the lack of testing is the fact that most of the chemicals used to formulate cleaning and personal care products aren’t disclosed on an ingredient label.

“DEA (diethanolamine), for instance, imparts a creamy texture and helps something lather well. It’s good for liquid soaps and all kinds of cleaning products and it’s mostly safe,” said Dr. Greene. “But if it were to get into the brain, it can hurt the brain. Throughout most of our lifecycle, it can’t do that.”

However, he went on to acknowledge the research of a colleague who’s extensively studied DEA and its effect on pregnant animals, noting that when the fetuses are exposed, because they don’t have the blood-brain barrier, their brains are changed by it.

“It looks like it could cause something like ADHD, which we’re seeing increase so rapidly,” he said. “I encourage pregnant women—not that it’s going to cause it for your child but it could tilt the odds in the wrong way—to avoid DEA during pregnancy.”

The second problem Dr. Greene had with DEA is the suggestion that it’s mildly carcinogenic.

“You can counteract so may of these things with great nutrition and a great lifestyle, but if you happen to combine DEA with some other chemicals that are also common ingredients in different cleaning products, when they touch each other, they instantly become nitrosamines, which are really carcinogenic. But there’s no way to tell if you’re using those two things or not because again, it’s not on the label,” he said.

To that end, EWG has launched a new campaign called the Kid Safe Chemical Act (KSCA).

“The chemical law that we have in place now is called the 1976 Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA),” Ms. Houlihan said. “It was passed 30 years ago and is the only major environmental and public health statute in the US that hasn’t been modernized.”

The hallmark of TSCA is that it doesn’t require health and safety studies for new chemicals: 62,000 chemicals were “grandfathered in” and presumed safe.

“The system is broken: the EPA has reviewed the safety of just 200 of the 62,000 ‘old’ chemicals,” she said. “Eighty percent of all new chemicals are approved within three weeks, with or without safety studies, EPA uses computer models to estimate if the chemicals are toxic to human health. Only five chemicals have been banned or restricted by EPA under the law— the EPA couldn’t even ban asbestos under this law, that’s how weak this law is. This law rubber stamps hundreds of new chemicals each year.”

The KSCA requires that chemicals be safe for children and others who are sensitive, mandates precaution and action “in the face of uncertainty,” assumes chemicals are harming people until proven otherwise; and prioritizes safety reviews, bans and phase-outs based on what’s in people and hazardous.

The KSCA was introduced in both Houses of Congress on May 20. It’s currently in subcommittee and the panel participants were hopeful that in 2009, with the new Congress and the new administration, there’s a reasonable chance it will pass.

“If it does pass, as soon as it goes into effect, no new chemical will be approved to go onto the market unless it’s been tested for safety first and is proven safe for pregnant women and for kids and for other vulnerable populations,” said Dr. Greene. “It’s the way it should be and I can’t believe we’ve been doing it the other way.”

“We need to wake Congress up and let them know that children should be born in this world free of toxic chemicals,” she said. “We do this work to protect those who are most vulnerable among us, who can’t protect themselves.”  

Empowering Consumers

Seventh Generation is jumpstarting the effort to educate consumers. For starters, the company is transparently disclosing each ingredient in its cleaning products by way of a back label that’s something akin to a food nutrition label.

“When looking at a food label, most people don’t look at the ingredients, they look for sugar amounts and fat amounts…they’ve been trained by the systems and regulations around foods to have it presented to them in a more accessible format,” said Courtney Loveman, brand mother at Seventh Generation. “We’re starting to do something like that with a grid that lets people look at some of the key ingredients and understand what’s making them effective and what’s making them safer for people and the planet.”

She added that although the market for organic products has changed dramatically in the past couple of years, there is still a disconnect for consumers who presume that companies are supplying enough information necessary to make informed buying decisions. For instance a full ingredient listing would confuse the average consumer who couldn’t possibly know the difference between sodium citrate (an antioxidant enhancer and water softening agent) and sodium hypochlorite (bleach).

“If you read an ingredients list consisting of a bunch of chemical names, you have no idea what you’re reading,” she said. “We believe, that you not only have a right to know, you also have a right to understand what you’re buying.”

With that in mind, Seventh Generation created a consumer-friendly Label Reading Guide. After consulting with scientists and researchers to compile chemical and term definitions, the company went into stores, purchased as many different cleaning products they could find and created additional definitions for anything that consumers might find on a back label but not understand.

“In some cases it is a chemical ingredient, but in other cases it’s something as simple as the word ‘danger,’ ‘caution’ or the term ‘adequate ventilation.’ Sometimes people don’t know exactly what ‘adequate ventilation’ even means,” said Ms. Loveman.

The Guide can be downloaded from Seventh Generation’s website to a consumer’s home computer. It can also be downloaded as a mobile phone application so users are able to access the guide to help make purchase decisions while shopping for household cleaning products.

“People are saying that nobody can survive from a business perspective because you’re giving away your secret formulas,” concluded Dr. Greene. “I think it’s a great opportunity for parents to say that this really worked and that everybody should do this with their ingredients. People deserve to know what’s in the products they bring into their homes.”
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