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Evidence Mounting that Chemicals in the Environment Are Damaging Reproductive Health

Mothers exposed to significant levels of air pollution while pregnant give birth to children with lower childhood IQ scores, according to a new study released this week in Pediatrics. The study involved 249 New York City children whose mothers were exposed to varying levels of “typical kinds of urban air pollution, mostly from car, bus, and truck exhaust,” reports Lindsey Tanner of the Associated Press.

The children were given IQ tests at age 5, and those “exposed to the most pollution before birth scored on average four to five points lower than children with less exposure,” Tanner wrote. This is the first research to link prenatal pollution exposure to lower IQ scores.

“Reproductive Roulette,” a new Center for American Progress report by Reece Rushing, provides an overview of many research studies examining chemical exposure and its consequences for reproductive health. The report catalogs increases in fertility problems, premature births, and birth defects and disabilities connected to environmental toxins. It also includes recommendations for increased funding for chemical safety research, stronger chemical safety laws, and greater public access to chemical safety data. “Poor and minority children are exposed to lead and other dangerous chemicals at the highest levels,” Rushing writes.

Median concentrations of lead in blood (micrograms/dL) of children ages 1–5 years by race/ethnicity and family income, 2001–2004

The percentage of “U.S. students treated for a learning disability increased from 8.3 percent in 1976 to 13.8 percent in 2005,” the research demonstrates. The increase is attributable to chemical exposure and improved diagnostic criteria. Adolescents are unknowingly exposed to damaging chemicals from everyday consumer products including toys, food containers, nail polish, air fresheners, medical devices such as IV tubes, and compact discs, the CAP report indicates.

Reproductive Roulette” also cites a study that found 287 industrial chemicals present in ten newborn umbilical cords. After birth, babies may be exposed to chemicals such as phthalates that may leech from baby bottles, powder, lotion, and shampoo.

Exposure to phthalates, a group of chemicals used to soften plastics, is linked to a higher incidence of childhood autism, Rushing reports. Cases of autism increased 10-fold since the 1990s, according to a study he cites. Yet CAP calls from more research in this area, as the “connection between chemical exposures and autism remains unclear.”

The report also supports an expansion of the Integrated Risk Information System, an Environmental Protection Agency database of information on the human health effects of exposure to environmental contaminants. IRIS should provide public access to more chemical safety information in “a timely manner and free of political influence,” Rushing argues. Administrator of the EPA Lisa Jackson indicated that the agency will streamline the IRIS process and curb political influence in a joint Senate Environment and Public Works Committee and Subcommittee on Oversight hearing last month.

These recent reports highlight the fact that “you don’t have to live right next door to a belching factory to face pollution health risks,” Tanner wrote.

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