Stronger rules needed to protect babies, fetuses from toxic chemicals

“Every Woman. Every Time.” That’s a straightforward health mantra for well-woman care, but recently I’ve realized that it extends to children and families in the context of toxic substances.

The impacts of well-known chemicals like DDT, asbestos and lead are recognized for their negative impacts on health. But amidst the tens of thousands of chemicals listed on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency inventory, only a minority have been tested for toxic effects – and only a fraction of those have been evaluated for effects on brain development in children.

The evidence is clear: Brain development, during pregnancy and childhood, is harmed by certain chemical compounds. However, many of those chemical compounds remain in consumer products and other materials that are used daily across the country. It is time for the government to step up and improve chemical regulation, and it is time for companies to stop relying on dangerous compounds and to stop finding equally dangerous workarounds.

As an obstetrician-gynecologist, I know that pregnancy is a critical window of vulnerability, meaning that exposure to potentially toxic chemicals can have a long-lasting impact on health. Exposure during pregnancy can significantly interfere with a child’s ability to reach his or her full potential throughout childhood and into adulthood.

Data show that behavioral or intellectual impairment, such as those that contribute to neurodevelopmental disorders like ADHD, are linked to certain pesticides, flame retardants, air pollutants, lead and mercury. By reducing or preventing the use of these chemicals, we could see benefits in terms of improved child brain health and contribute to prevention of disorders.

Yes, some restrictions are in place regarding use of these chemicals. A new law, for example, the Frank R. Lautenberg Chemical Safety for the 21st Century Act, modernizes the chemical safety and approval process, and amends the decades-old Toxic Substances Control Act. Most importantly, new protections were introduced to safeguard pregnant women, infants and children from the effects of toxic chemicals. But there are also limitations in this law, and most importantly, its success will be determined by how EPA carries it out.

Besides the comparatively few regulated chemicals, there are thousands and thousands of other toxic substances in our environment. We can be certain that we are missing opportunities to prevent exposure.

This is why a wide range of experts ranging from obstetrician-gynecologists like me to pediatricians, endocrinologists, toxicologists, epidemiologists and public health experts have come together to create Project TENDR – Targeting Environmental NeuroDevelopmental Risks – to call for change from the government whose job it is to protect us and from the manufacturers who have the power to do better.

Our regulators need to overhaul their approach to developing and assessing evidence on chemicals to which pregnant women and children are exposed. These chemicals may be interfering in brain development, and this is particularly important to the vulnerabilities of the fetus and child. Regulators need to focus on the cumulative effects of exposure to multiple chemicals and the lack of a safety threshold while addressing and mitigating exposure to chemicals that are in the environment.

Moreover, the businesses that make and use these chemicals must eliminate all neurodevelopmental toxins from their products, eschewing the workarounds that continue to put us in danger.

Decades of exposure have affected countless Americans. Witness the Flint, Mich., lead exposures that help us realize that ongoing exposures to chemicals can impact the health of the next generation. Investing in health now is an investment in the future. Ongoing exposure continues to affect children, because these chemicals are already part of their environment.

We cannot continue to gamble with our children’s health, as their futures represent the future of this country.

“Every Woman. Every Child. Every Family. Every Time.”

Dr. Jeanne Conry is assistant physician in chief at The Permanente Medical Group in Roseville. She is a past president of the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists and an associate clinical professor of OB-GYN at UC Davis. Contact her at