Infuriated mom: Why can’t I protect my body? Study pinpoints chemicals in moms-to-be
Pregnant and looking forward to motherhood, Kim Radtke walked the three-mile-long trail around Green Lake twice a week. She swam. She stretched in prenatal yoga class. She munched mostly organic foods – for years. Aware of chemicals in everyday products, she refused such things as ordinary scented lotions and deodorants. Trained as a midwife, she made a career of helping babies get a good start in life and she wanted the same for her unborn son.
So when Radtke took part in a new study – released today – that tested levels of chemicals in pregnant women, she was dismayed to learn she rated worst among nine West Coast women tested for a particular class of chemicals: perfluorinated compounds (PFCs**). They’re used to make Teflon pans, clothing, furniture, and food packaging such as pizza boxes and fast-food containers.
In all, 11 nasty chemicals from everyday products and foods were detected in Radtke’s blood, meaning such substances also passed through her umbilical cord to her unborn child. And now that nearly three-week-old Karson has arrived, with every nutrition-filled breastfeeding, he sucks in chemicals.
“That really kills me as a mom,” says Radtke in an interview. “I took the best care I could possible, yet this was beyond my control.”
“We all kind of live in a toxic dump that we have very little control over, and that’s really sad.”
Even more chemicals were detected in Connie Galambos Malloy of Oakland, Calif., who told study authors: “This study shows that my body has been invaded by toxins from all angles despite my efforts to the contrary.”
The research project by Washington Toxics Coalition staff scientist Erika Shreder in conjunction with other groups is aimed at spurring state legislators in Washington to further rein in chemicals, and prod changes at the national level. That happened before with the Children’s Safe Products Act, which, among other things, bans lead, cadmium and plasticizers called phthalates in toys and other children’s products.
Shreder calls the newly released study the first of its kind of pregnant women. While the U.S. Centers for Disease Control continues to undergo chemical sampling of people for a larger, long-range study, it doesn’t look at a particular demographic – such as pregnant women – and it doesn’t reveal names and faces of participants. “We have all of those things,” says Shreder.
“It’s alarming that these chemicals are present in pregnant women,” Shreder says. “The environment that most needs to be safe – the womb – is not free of toxic pollution.”
Blood and urine samples were taken from nine women to test for 23 chemicals from five chemical groups. Every woman tested was found to have been exposed to bisphenol A, found in such things as the lining of food cans. Each woman had two to four so-called “Teflon chemicals” (PFCs**). All had detectable levels of mercury, a chemical found in long-lived fish like tuna that is known to harm brain development. And every woman was exposed to at least four “phthalates” (pronounced THAL-ates). That’s a class of chemicals that includes plasticizers and fragrance carriers which is found in ordinary items such as vinyl shower curtains and scented shampoos. In all, researchers found 13 of the 23 chemicals they tested for in the study participants.
“These chemicals can cause reproductive problems and cancer, disrupt hormonal systems such as the thyroid, and can impair brain development,” the study states. It argues that “the developing fetus is exquisitely vulnerable to the effects of toxic chemicals,” as it possesses “only a small proportion of the adult’s ability to detoxify foreign chemicals” while it “develops at a breakneck pace in the womb.”
State Rep. Mary Lou Dickerson, D-Seattle, says she will push for passage of the Safe Baby Bottle Act, which she introduced last year. It passed the House, but not Senate. It would prohibit Bisphenol A in baby bottles, children’s food containers and sports water bottles. The bill doesn’t extend to the Bisphenol A in the linings of canned foods.
“I’m concentrating on babies and developing fetuses because they are the most at risk,” Dickerson said in an interview. The chemical “mimics estrogen. So it can wreak havoc with the endocrine systems of little boys and little girls.”
Chemical manufacturers consistently have maintained that they try to minimize risks. The American Chemistry Council’s web site, which features a photo of a diaper-clad baby in a hospital and another of a young girl on her bicycle, argues that the “chemical industry recognizes that environmental health issues represent a legitimate concern, especially for parents. We also recognize our responsibility to help preserve a healthy environment, not only for our own children, but also for future generations.”
However, the web site says risks must be put into context and suggests that risks from chemicals are not as serious as those from “accidents, violence, alcohol, drug abuse, tobacco, poverty, nutrition, sexually transmitted diseases, teenage pregnancy, child abuse…to name only a few.” The web site adds: “Chemical manufacturers go to great lengths to assure that their products are safe for their intended uses.”
Amy Ellings of Olympia, however, bought new shampoos and soaps without the words “fragrance” or “parfum” on their labels after she participated in the Washington Toxics study and learned it detected in her body 12 tested chemicals. They included by far the study’s highest reading of a particular phthalate, so she got rid of her vinyl shower curtain.
“I feel frustration that there hasn’t been enough studies done to show exactly what happens with these chemicals,” Ellings, a dietician, said in an interview. Even though some studies do show problems, she’s frustrated that companies aren’t forced to list on labels all chemicals contained in their products. “Nobody’s doing anything about it,” Ellings said. “I think companies have to at least label… I feel that’s the government’s role, is to protect the health of our nation.”
Molly Gray, a midwife and naturopathic physician in Seattle found to have 13 tested chemicals in her body, told researchers: “I do my best to live organic and chemical-free. Apparently local/organic food only, toxin-free cleaners, off-gassed mattress, low/no VOC paint, and filtered water isn’t enough. The answer I received from this study is that the fight is too big for just one person.”
Radtke, the Green Lake walker and a breastfeeding advocate, agrees.
“It’s sad for me as a new mom,” Radtke said in an interview. “I sit there and I nurse my baby and I know this is the BEST thing I can give my child. And I know the longer I breastfeed my child, the healthier he will be, and I’m totally dedicated to that. But I also realize I’m saddened at the same time, because I’m off-loading some of my body burden [of chemicals] onto him. And that’s not fair. He didn’t ask for that. That’s what makes me really angry…
“Moms should be angry about this because we’re passing this on to our children and there’s nothing we can do about it, and that’s infuriating.”
**CORRECTION: The original version of this story used the wrong acronym for perfluorinated compounds. The correct acronym is PFCs, not PFOS.
WHERE TO TURN
Want to avoid phthalates or other chemicals at home? Consult these resources:
* Skin Deep www.cosmeticsdatabase.com
* Campaign for Safe Cosmetics: www.safecosmetics.org
* Washington Toxics Coalition www.watoxics.org
* Plastics Ingredients Could Make a Boy’s Play Less Masculine (by Science News)
* Mercury Found in Blood of One-Third of American Women (by Environment News Service; SEJ)
* A Glut of Mercury Raises Fears (by Washington Post)
* FDA Knew about Mercury in Corn Syrup — and Kept Silent (by Chicago Tribune; SEJ Tipsheet)
* BPA May Affect Sexual Function in Adult Men, Study Finds (by ConsumerReports Health Blog)
* Puget Sound: Down the Drain? When you wash clothes, you pollute (by Seattlepostglobe)
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