Poisoning the unborn

Feature story - 8 September, 2005
The umbilical cord is more than a prenatal lifeline: it's also the unborn child's link to the toxic burden of our planet. According to new research by Greenpeace and WWF UK, the toxic chemicals in our cell phones, our computers, our perfumes, our shaving cream, and our clothes are also present in our children.

Our children inherit the toxic burden of our planet.

Analysis of maternal and umbilical cord blood provided by volunteers in the Netherlands, published in a study entitled A Present for Life,reveals that known or suspected hazardous substances, present ineveryday household products, are entering babies' bodies through theumbilical cord. The chemicals include some which are known to affectphysical and mental development in animals.

"Our children are being exposed to pollutingchemicals, though we have hardly any information on the long-termeffects."

--Pieter Sauer, Professor of Pediatrics, UniversityHospital Groningen

Thisreport, commissioned jointly by Greenpeace Netherlands and WWF-UK,investigated the presence of hazardous chemicals in maternal and cordblood samples. 42 maternal blood serum and 27 cord bloodserum samples were taken at the University Hospital Groningen.Independent laboratory TNO-MEP analysed the samples for the followingchemicals: brominated flame retardant TBBP-A, phthalates, artificialmusks, bisphenol-A, alkylphenols,

organochlorine pesticides (DDT), triclosan and perfluorinated compounds.

Thechemicals in question are contained in countless items ranging fromfood tins and electrical goods to pesticides, deodorants andtoothpastes. They include artificial musks, used to add scent toperfumes and perfumed products, and perfluorinated compounds, used inwater-repellent coatings and to prepare non-stick surfaces such asteflon. Also found were flame-retardants suspected of causing learningand behavioural problems in animals, and the antibacterial agenttriclosan, used in antibacterial soap.

The results clearly show the presence of these chemicals in the blood serum samples from both mother and child.

Particularlyworrying are the hormone-disrupting chemicals, which may cause mostdamage during the vulnerable stages of development, that is duringperiods of rapid cell division, such as in early life and particularlywhen inthe womb. A small disturbance in early development can have seriousconsequences in later life. PCBs and dioxins have already illustratedthe potential for long-term, irreversible consequences of exposure tohazardous chemicals.

Chemicals in our world, chemicals in our bodies

The chemical industry has undergone spectacular growth in the last century.

Thereare now more than 100,000 different chemicals available on the market.Chemicals are incorporated into countless consumer products, some ofwhich undoubtedly benefit our standard of living. But they also providea source of daily exposure to a cocktail of hazardous chemicals.Hazardous chemicals can be found everywhere. They are released into theenvironment at several points in their life cycle and travel in the airand in water to even remote areas like the Alps and the Arctic.

Someof the most hazardous chemicals do not break down easily and canaccumulate throughout the food chain. Food has long been thought to bethe primary route of exposure for most persistent and bioaccumulativechemicals.

However, in recent years greater attention has beengiven to the potential exposure directly through the use of productscontaining hazardous ingredients and indirectly through theircontamination of the indoor environment. Greenpeace has analysed a range of everyday consumer productsfor the presence of a number of (potentially) hazardous chemicals andlooked for these same chemicals in house dust and rainwater.

Food is not the only path to exposure

Theresults add weight to the suspicion that these chemicals can 'leak'from products. Follow-up investigations by Greenpeace Netherlands and others havesought to research the extent to which these chemicals actually end upin our bodies, by collecting and analysing blood samples from humanvolunteers.

The results of recent blood research projects byGreenpeace and WWF confirm that we all have hazardous chemicals in ourblood, including chemicals that are contained in normal consumerproducts. Of particular concern is the impact of exposure to thesesubstances on (unborn) children. The unprotected foetus is extremelyvulnerable to hazardous chemicals. Mothers can unwittingly pass onthese substances to their child during pregnancy and through breastfeeding (which should not deter mothers from breast feeding, as thebenefits of breast feeding are still widely acknowledged).

Phthalates,one of the most omnipresent groups of chemicals and used mainly assofteners in Polyvinyl chloride (PVC), as well asin cosmetics and perfumes, were found in many of thematernal and cord blood samples. DEHP, the most commonly usedplasticizer, was detected in 29 maternal and 24 cord blood samples.Some phthalates can be particularly damaging to the male reproductivetract, and are toxic to reproduction.

Manycompanies have take action unilaterally against toxics in theirproducts, demonstrating that the substitution of hazardous chemicals ispossible.  Sony and Sony Ericsson, for example, are phasing out brominated flame retardants. Clothing companies H&M and Marks and Spencer have substitutionpolicies and ask their suppliers to use alternatives to a range ofchemicals that can build up and persist in our bodies. (Have a look atour report, Substituting with Style, for more information about companies that are helping create a toxic-free future.)

Somecompanies such as the cleaning products manufacturer, Ecover, avoidpersistent and bioaccumulative chemicals as part of their corebusiness.  Unfortunately not all companies want to shut the dooron substances that can contaminate our bodies.   Greenpeacetesting, for example, found that some Disney children's pyjamas carried toxic-laden PVC prints, and the company has not stopped.  That's why we need laws -- voluntary compliance simply isn't good enough.

We can stop this

Howthen can we better protect our children from exposure to suchpotentially harmful chemicals? The only answer is for governments toput in place mechanisms that will drive industry to replace thesechemicals with safer alternatives.

Proposed new EU legislation on chemicals, 'REACH' (Registration, Evaluation and Authorisation of Chemicals),gives Europe a crucial opportunity to take the necessary action toprotect humans and the environment from the effects of harmfulchemicals and to make producers responsible for the impacts of their


REACH  is intended to protect people and environment.  Buta powerful industry lobby threatens to weaken this legislation. 

Greenpeace and WWF are calling on legislators to put theinterests of public health and the environment first, by ensuring thatthe worst chemicals are identified and phased out, and by making itobligatory to substitute toxic chemicals with safer alternatives.

What we want:

  • Anobligation to phase out the production and use of chemicals thataccumulate in wildlife, humans or the environment, and those thatdisrupt hormones.
  • An obligation to substitute hazardous chemicals with safer alternatives.
  • Completedisclosure of substances used in manufacturing processes and thecomposition of products, including the effects and properties ofchemicals.
  • Make industry accountable for the impacts of their products.
  • Make importers meet the same standards as manufacturers in the EU.

In the next fewmonths European politicians will decide whether or not to protect the peopleand environment or to allow industry to continue contaminating our bodies.  Help us close the door on toxicchemical contamination.

Demand strengthened EU regulation of chemicals

Do you live in Europe?
Help pressure the European Parliament to adopt strong legislation to phase out toxic chemicals.

Don't live in Europe?
Tell Disney to remove toxic chemicals from its product line.

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