Are you outraged that infants born in the United States are contaminated by more than 200 environmental chemicals? Does it enrage you that pediatricians and toxicologists debate whether breast milk, with its legions of immune boosting, obesity-averting and allergy-blocking properties, may no longer be the best food for babies due to the large transfer of environmental chemicals from mother to child? Are you furious and frightened that one out of fifty-four baby boys will be diagnosed with autism? To date as a nation, we do not appear to be outraged, angry, or frightened. So what else might have to happen to shatter our complacency as a country and make a commitment to environmental safety for our children?
As a physician, I regularly counsel my patients on environmental precautions. We discuss the use of water filters; consider which foods ought to be eaten only if organic; and grapple with reasonable approaches to deal with persistent pollutants. I point them to resources such as the Environmental Working Group and Cornucopia. As a mother, I wrestle with what to advise my three children, all now in their twenties, to keep their body burden of chemicals low, before they contemplate pregnancy. At The University of Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine, where I serve as the executive director, we educate all of our fellows in environmental medicine and include it in our residency curriculum – now licensed at 33 residencies nationwide. With philanthropic support, we have also developed a free online educational module on environmental medicine.
Yet none of these steps are enough. Individuals cannot overcome the environmental pollution challenges alone. Many cannot afford to, others are ignorant of their exposures, but mostly the chemicals are too ubiquitous for an individual to fully avoid. For example, in California, policies mandate that flame-retardants are used in many household products including couches and high chairs. When sufficient data is available to ban one substance, chemical companies make minor changes, such as replacing chlorine with bromine, and it falls to scientists again to slowly build a case for the risks. Despite decades of experience learning the hard way of the health consequences of these chemicals, we continue to place the burden of proof or safety, not on the manufacturers, but instead on a small group of scientists.
When will we as a nation commit to change? There is enough data to support the role of environmental chemicals in increasing the risk of autism, ADHD, cancer of multiple kinds, diabetes, endocrine disruption, infertility, lower IQs, obesity, and thyroid disorders. When will we flip the whole process and require safety data prior to the release of chemicals? When will we require chemical companies to review all existing chemicals on the marketplace including those grandfathered in when by the Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976
Imagine for a moment that we decided to catapult our current approach and put the health of unborn children first. What might we resolve to do as a nation?
1. Make pesticide free food available to all adults planning a pregnancy – create a system that works with WIC programs and food stamps
2. Create a national environmental corps and hire the passionate young (and currently underemployed) high school and college graduates to provide home assessments and actions to reduce or eliminate chemicals in the home including:
a. placing water filters on all home systems as an added barrier to remove heavy metals, chlorine, pharmaceutical drugs, and environmental chemicals
b. providing hepafilters when high levels of environmental chemicals detected
3. Change policy so as to stop the use of chemicals which persist in the environment and bioaccumulate in fat (in our own and the animals we eat) including flame retardants
4. Require chemical companies to use the newly developed TIPED protocol to assess for potential endocrine disruptors
5. Include surveillance of personal body load of chemicals in preventive care
Idealistic? Obviously. And, I have confidence that our innovative nation can find ways to make these priorities. The love of our children is a powerful motivator.