American children are likely to face serious health consequences from new and existing industrial chemicals in the environment, argue a group of researchers in a report in this month's premier open-access global health journal PLoS Medicine.
Women exposed to industrial chemicals in the environment pass them on to their children across the placenta or via breast milk, and children are also exposed to chemicals by direct ingestion of house dust, soil, and other dietary sources during early childhood. The vast majority of these chemicals, say the researchers, have never been tested to ensure that they are safe for the developing fetus or child.
While the exact consequences of exposing children to these chemicals are unknown, the researchers - Bruce Lanphear and Charles Vorhees at the Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center, University of Cincinnati, and David Bellinger at Harvard Medical School - say that "exposures to environmental toxins have been linked with higher rates of mental retardation, intellectual impairment, and behavioral problems, such as conduct disorder and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder."
A crucial step towards protecting children would be to ensure that industrial chemicals undergo "developmental neurotoxicity testing." Such testing uses animal experiments to provide information on what happens to the fetal nervous system, and the newborn child's nervous system, when it is exposed to an industrial chemical during pregnancy or while breast feeding. Unfortunately, argue Lanphear and colleagues, the most basic toxicity tests in animals are lacking for 75% of the 3,000 highest production volume chemicals.
Under current regulations, they say, manufacturers of commercial chemicals have no legal obligation to prove that their chemicals are non-toxic before marketing them. While the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has entered into an agreement with the American Chemistry Council, the chemical manufacturer's trade association, to provide basic toxicity screening tests for the high-production chemicals, this agreement is voluntary.
The European Commission recently proposed a much tougher regulatory framework for industrial chemicals, known as the "REACH" program (Registration, Evaluation, and Authorization of Chemicals). Under the program, both European and non-European manufacturers doing business in Europe must submit more extensive toxicity data for about 30,000 chemicals on the market. In contrast with the REACH program, say Lanphear and colleagues, "the Bush administration has argued - in unison with the American Chemistry Council - that such regulations would harm industry."
"It is time to acknowledge that the existing requirements for toxicity testing and regulations are inadequate to safeguard pregnant women and children," they say. "Until a formal regulatory system is developed to effectively screen and identify new and existing chemicals that are toxic to pregnant women and children, we are left to await the next epidemic to warn us about an environmental disaster. Unfortunately, by then we will have once again fouled our nest."