THE POLLUTED WOMB
A report from Radio Ecoshock
[clip from speech by Dr. Perera, outlining the terrible statistics for children damaged by pollution]
That’s right. Classrooms full of wheezing kids with inhalers in their pockets. Post modern kids have damaged DNA, and diminished IQ, because chemicals are hitting them right in the womb, in their earliest stages of development.
This is last year’s news, but the horror of industrial damage to new generations of humans hasn’t really reached out everyday minds. We definitely don’t want to hear that our air, seeming so clear, is poisonous. And our vehicles, those magic things that let us fly across the ground, reach right into the womb, and our lungs, ever after.
A team of researchers led by Doctor Frederica Perera has proved this, with a ground-breaking study in New York City. The team from Columbia University followed hundreds of mothers, from the first discovery of pregnancy, through infancy, and early childhood. One of the most important discoveries: pesticides and other industrial chemicals are mixing with car exhaust, a kind of unseen toxic smog that penetrates the womb, and harms humans at every stage of life.
Pesticides cause birth defects, damage DNA, and predispose children to diseases later in life, especially cancer. We know this, by science, and by the sick and dying people exposed to pesticides. Of course, you don’t use pesticides, just Mother Nature Brand Soap in your home, so you’re OK, right?
Not really. As Doctor Perera describes in a 40 minute speech given to Congressional staffers, pesticides are everywhere. Municipalities spray them along roads to kill weeds and trees. Condo and apartment maintenance people use them liberally. Golf course spray adds to the aerosol mist of chlorinated poisons that float across the city. And your factory farm food is laced with fungicides, insecticides, and herbicides.
Blood tests of random citizens, whether in Europe or North America, reveal 60 or more toxic chemicals running around in all of us. Trust me, you are getting your fair share of the chemical feast.
[Clip of woman talking about her blood]
The biggest non-surprise: automobile smog combined with pesticides and stress, form a super threat to human health. The exhaust of cars and trucks, which we all take for granted, is so powerful it crosses nature’s protective barrier in the womb, the placenta, and injures our babies. The number of cars and trucks has more than doubled since the 1950s. We are producing a new damaged generation, the Exhausted Ones.
Let’s introduce Dr Frederica Perera, from the Mailman School of Public Health, Columbia University. A stylish-looking woman, Dr Perera, known as “Ricky” to her friends, has that rare combination of vision, science, and the skills to attract public agencies and dollars, for the study of disadvantaged people. She argues it is far cheaper, not to mention more humane, to prevent diseases from the moment of conception, than to pay for many lives of illness and disability.
A small story about her study broke in the New York Times for February 16th, 2005, an Associated Press piece titled “Pollution Is Linked to Fetal Harm.” Google that title, the article pops up, top of the pile. It reads:
“Exposure to pollutants caused chiefly by vehicles was measured by backpack air monitors worn by the women during the third trimester of pregnancy.
When the babies were born, genetic alterations were measured. Researchers found an increase of about 50 percent in the level of persistent genetic abnormalities among infants with high levels of exposure, said the study’s senior author, Dr. Frederica P. Perera, director of the Columbia Center for Children’s Environmental Health.
‘We already knew that air pollutants significantly reduced fetal growth, but this is the first time we’ve seen evidence that they can change chromosomes in utero,’ Dr. Perera said, adding that the kind of genetic changes that occurred had been linked in other studies to increased risk of cancer.”
Three paragraphs note that vehicle exhaust is altering the genes of newborns, and not in a good way. It’s a shame that car pollution stories don’t warrant the full-page spreads available to car makers and oil companies.
But Doctor Perera said much more in her a talk titled “Pre-Natal Exposures to Pollutants and Future Health Risks.” It was part of a Policy Maker Education course for Congressional Staff, organized by the Harvard Medical School Center for Health and the Global Environment, on March 30th, 2005. You can be briefed like Congress Staff, by watching the video. I’ll tell you how to find the video, and a better quality audio version of the speech, later in this broadcast.
We all need to investigate further, to face up to reality for babies, kids, and city humans generally. This likely includes you. So here’s the problem:
Twenty five percent of inner city kids with asthma. Autism and other birth defects spiraling. Fifteen percent of school kids with a learning disability. In the 1950s, when cars were just beginning, these things were rare. Now, they are common and growing. Everyone knows a family with a child with difficulties. You may think its just a fad, or over-medicalization, until it happens to your family. Asthma, autism, and childhood cancer are not just a trick, but a heart-breaking struggle.
These problems are worst for visible minorities, who enjoy dense traffic, and truck or bus yards built into their already burdened neighborhoods. But who doesn’t live near a highway now? Who doesn’t inhabit an air shed loaded with vehicle exhaust?
In a criminal over-simplification of the Doctor’s speech, she emphasizes three major causes of genetic deformation and disease in the womb and childhood. Pesticides, vehicle exhaust, and stress stand out from a complex weave of possible causes, once obvious things like tobacco, alcohol abuse, and heavy metals like lead are factored out. The study found that stress of living in pollution feeds the terrible stress of trying to raise sick or mentally challenged kids. It’s a negative feedback loop.
Cars and trucks produce many chemical combinations. But gasoline and oil are basically hydrocarbons. When they are burned, they emit particles called “Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons.” That chemical name is too long, so we use the acronym “PAH’s.”
PAH’s can occur in nature, when organic matter burns, perhaps in a forest fire. But that’s nothing like the persistent flood of airborne PAH’s produced by our transportation system. There are many types of PAH’s, and some of them are highly carcinogenic, cancer causing, and mutagenic, creating mutations of DNA, even in the womb. All PAH’s contain benzene. PAH’s are found in all sorts of petrochemicals, like solvents and dyes, as well as burnt gasoline. Roofing tar, creosote, and coal-fired power plants are strong sources of PAHs. So are cigarettes.
But today, we’re just focusing on vehicle exhaust.
[Clip 2: PAHs]
Breaking more new ground, this New York study tested the COMBINATION of chemicals in the real world, as opposed to standard government tests of individual chemicals, by themselves.
[clip 3: Study Them All]
This is vital. Governments, and chemical makers, carefully isolate one chemical, and test it on rats. They base the safety level, the amount you may be receiving, on this illusory system. In reality, all sorts of chemicals appear in untested combinations. We inhale and ingest a chemical smorgasbord that has never been tested on humans, by anybody. We’re all part of this global experiment to see what happens to human biology. Welcome to the experiment.
Babies and kids are far more sensitive to environmental toxins than adults. The Doctor explains why:
[clip 4: Higher Risk for Kids]
So in the Bronx, and in Harlem, the team set up indoor air quality monitors, and occasionally, fitted the pregnant mothers with backpacks that measured pollution. That was all combined with blood tests, questionnaires, and a host of other measurement techniques. They followed up with health checks on the babies, and followed the kids up to school age, so far, all the while comparing the amount of pollution with the actual health of children, both mental and physical. Science is proving that exposure to pollution sets up pre-natal changes that can determine major diseases in childhood, or even much later in life.
The study doesn’t just measure what toxins remain in the body. It shows the genetic damage caused by pollution.
[Clip 5: PAH Markers]
Chromosomes are damaged, immune systems compromised, from birth by pollution. It’s visible at a microscopic level, not a theory, but a provable fact.
They studied the lives of 700 mothers. They found PAHs and pesticides in every air sample, in every breath they took.
[Clip 6: Every Mother Exposed]
The fingerprints of DNA damage from PAHs was found in 40 percent of newborn babies.
Organophosphate pesticides like Diazinon were found in 100% of the babies, from day one of their breathing life on earth.
Doesn’t the placenta, the blood barrier in the mother’s womb, protect the unborn child?
[Clip 7: Placenta Protection]
These pollutants also reduce birth weight, meaning more chance of illness, or even reduced IQ, in later life. Again, PAHs, from auto exhaust, and other carbon burners, is now proven to reduce the survival of human offspring.
[Clip 8: Birth Weight Matters]
And as we said at the beginning, PAH’s from vehicle exhaust and coal-fired power plants are directly driving the explosion of children with asthma.
[Clip 9: PAHs and Asthma]
New York City spends $450 million dollars a year for their “Early Intervention” programs, trying to help the victims of pollution. The cost of treating asthma in American children, in 2002, was 7 billion dollars. Of course, many of the growing number of children with asthma in China, or Poland, don’t get treatment.
Add more billions for the productivity loss resulting from a drop in IQ, a generation less smart, less able to solve the problems that polluted their young bloodstreams. There are powerful economic arguments to reduce urban pollution.
What can be done?
Some universities and institutes are trying, with presentations like this one, to reach the minds of policy makers, to enact laws which reduce pollution. In 2002, the EPA began a phase out of the worst organophosphate pesticides for residential use. A single insecticide called Chlorpyrifos, sold as Dursban or Lorsban, was shown to affect not just mental ability in school children, but also body co-ordination. It was used in fumigation of cheap housing, and, before the regulation, was part of consumer products like “Raid.”
It’s amazing that tobacco-like lawsuits haven’t been launched by the millions of parents whose children will never go to college, and who suffered or died, due to this pesticide. After the EPA tightened regulations, just a little, Dr. Perera’s team saw an almost immediate decrease of these toxins in more recent blood tests. But Chlorpyrifos is still being used on crops, and shows up in kids’ food, and your food.
Perhaps this study will help break down the generation-long wall of denial. Those who don’t seem to care about city kids, or kids at all, may at least balk at the looming public health care crisis, as a new generation of pollution-damaged humans develop.
You can help, by educating yourself, and others. The Web address for the Perera video is just too long to repeat in the audio podcast. You can find the link in the Ecoshock Newsblog at www.ecoshock.org/podcast.html, under the article title “The Polluted Womb.” (You are reading that now…)
For you Blog readers, the link for the video turned out to be too long, and chocked Blogger.
A better quality audio-only version of the speech is available from the Downloads page at Ecoshock.org. It’s about 40 minutes long.
Here’s the link: http://www.ecoshock.org/downloads/PreNatal_Pereral.mp3
Dr. Perera’s scientific work on pollution in New York City can be found in the NIEHS journal “Environmental Health Perspectives on Air Pollution,” although that article is now outdated, surpassed by new data.
The main thing is to wrap your mind around the reality of clouds of tiny chemical particles, that you cannot see. Air quality in most cities in the world is no longer safe for pregnant women, babies, or children. At the very least, these groups need special protection.
In the worst cases, such as downtown New York, or Beijing, Mexico City, or Los Angeles, pregnant women may want to do the unthinkable: wear a breathing mask over the face when out and about, to protect the developing fetus from the smog of pesticides, chemicals, and exhaust. If the car, coal and pesticide culture continues, pregnant women may need to be evacuated into the countryside.
Once born, babies should be kept as high as possible from the roadway. Even a baby backpack is better than a low-slung stroller. In the 1990’s, Greenpeace Germany measured vehicle exhaust at different heights. Accounting for the differences in lung and body size, they found a stroller would have to be about 14 feet up in the air, to give the baby the same dose of air available to adults five feet off the ground. Anyway, down where the dogs are, it’s bad air, and babies don’t belong there.
Incidentally, kids aren’t safe inside the car either. It’s even more polluted inside, close to that motor, than outside on the pavement. Again, a mask would offer some protection, and don’t drive around with newborn babies more than necessary.
Another obvious short-term solution is to install a HEPA air filter in the bedroom of pregnant women and young children, to remove the particulates from car and diesel exhaust. Even with windows closed, the general city smog is moving through the building.
These are awful tricks for an awful situation. To make air fit for humans, we need to remove the most toxic pesticides and chemicals, and find a non-polluting form of transportation. And while we work toward that cleaner day, each of us needs to act, now, to reduce our personal consumption of polluting products. Reduce your personal exhaust.
Some little lives are depending on it.
[Clip asthma girl]
This report is from Radio Ecoshock, non-stop all environment radio, at www.ecoshock.org.
The podcast included samples of music by Dave Keifer, from podsafeaudio.com. Thanks Dave!