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Deborah Cory-Slechta Podcast

Exposure to certain chemicals or stressors in utero can cause immediate health effects for fetuses and babies including lowered birth weight, birth defects, and impaired neurodevelopment. New lines of research are now showing that prenatal exposures may also contribute to health problems that typically arise later in life—such as obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, cancer, and Parkinson disease—via changes to DNA transcription and the hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal axis. In this podcast, Deborah Cory-Slechta discusses the phenomenon known as the fetal basis of adult disease. Cory-Slechta is a professor of environmental medicine at the University of Rochester School of Medicine and Dentistry.

Listen to the podcast here.

Podcast Transcript

AHEARN: It’s The Researcher’s Perspective. I’m Ashley Ahearn.

When we are exposed to certain chemicals or stressors in the womb, research has shown there are certain immediate health problems that may arise—lowered birth weight, birth defects, or impaired neurodevelopment, to name a few.

But what about health problems that typically arise later in life—obesity, cardiovascular disease, cancer, Parkinson’s disease? Could these also be the result of exposure to certain substances early in our development?

More and more research is being done to explore what’s called the “fetal basis of adult disease hypothesis.”

Joining me to talk about it is Dr. Deborah Cory-Slechta. She’s a professor of environmental medicine at the University of Rochester School of Medicine and Dentistry.

Dr. Cory-Slechta, thanks for being here.

CORY-SLECHTA: Glad to be with you.

AHEARN: Let’s start by laying out this hypothesis, the fetal basis of adult disease. What is it?

CORY-SLECHTA: Well, it actually started with some work done by Dr. Barker1 back many years ago looking at victims of a Dutch famine. And what he saw in those individuals was that those who suffered under-nutrition in the womb later in life had a much higher incidence of a variety of different diseases and disorders, particularly cardiovascular disease, hypertension. There were also cognitive kinds of problems, a real assortment of different diseases, and that’s what really got this whole area of the fetal basis of adult disease off and running, so to speak—that you could have something going on early in life, this under-nutrition, and even if those children ultimately caught up nutrition-wise with children who didn’t have early under-nutrition, they still ended up having this higher episode incidence of diseases and disorders later in life.

AHEARN: But this hypothesis now stretches beyond just under-nutrition in terms of stressors. We’re looking at exposures as well, right?

CORY-SLECHTA: We’re looking at, actually, a variety of different things. Yes, it does expand beyond that. So one of the things that’s become clear is that early under-nutrition itself can cause a variety of diseases and disorders later in life, and there are multiple ways in which that seems to happen. One is through something called epigenetics where you have an influence on what’s called the transcription of DNA—not a change in the DNA itself, the structure of the DNA, but in how it gets transcribed or activated. You can have what appear to be permanent changes in something called the HPA axis, the hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal axis. That’s the body’s system that controls responses to stress, and when you have early or maternal prenatal stress you can cause increases in stress hormones in the fetus that basically result in permanent changes in the HPA axis. That HPA axis change can lead, itself, to many different diseases and disorders because it controls a lot of those organ systems.

Also, now we’re beginning to look at a lot of environmental exposures that probably through these different mechanisms, like epigenetics or changing the HPA axis, among others, thereby lead to these diseases and disorders by permanently changing these mechanisms.

AHEARN: What other diseases that manifest later in life do you think could be tied to early developmental exposures?

CORY-SLECHTA: Well, let me use lead exposure as an example of that, something we know a lot about. We know that lead exposure early in life is one of the kinds of exposures that can permanently change this HPA axis function. Lead exposure early in life has been tied to later hypertension, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, schizophrenia, neurodegenerative changes, all of which may occur through these changes in the HPA axis function. That’s just one example. We haven’t studied a lot of these other chemicals, but I think we’re going to be seeing some similar kinds of things. Other examples are endocrine disruptors, things like bisphenol A or phthalates, which affect sex steroid hormones. Those two are producing permanent changes early in development, in this case in hormonal systems that basically target lots of different organs in the body. So it’s really going to be a variety of different diseases and disorders that are ultimately, I think, going to get tied back to some of these kinds of exposures.

AHEARN: Why does it take so long? When you’re looking at a disease that can crop up 65 years later, 70 years later, what’s going on in the interim?

CORY-SLECHTA: Things like epigenetics really can explain that because you’re producing changes in essentially the transcription or activation of a gene that can be lifelong kinds of changes. If they occur in the sperm or the egg, they can actually then be transmitted to the next generation so now we have the possibility not only of you having these epigenetic changes that can manifest themselves in diseases and disorders later in life, but that you could transmit to your offspring. When you change things like the HPA axis early in life it can be thought of like a thermostat that you’ve now reset and you can’t change it back again. So it never operates correctly later in life either. The brain development has to unfold; a sequence of steps has to unfold perfectly in time. If you change that early in life, then it’s broken. It never can refix itself because the time at which it goes through development has long since passed. So there’s really no way to repair some of these changes. They’re basically now set in stone for life.

And I think partly the other really important thing about this whole field of fetal basis is that those effects are extremely gender-specific.

AHEARN: Could you talk a little bit more about those gender differences? I mean, am I more vulnerable as a baby boy than a baby girl?

CORY-SLECHTA: Well, it depends on the disease that we’re talking about. So if you think about something like Parkinson’s disease we know that it has a higher prevalence in males; that is, females are protected against this disease. One of the thoughts about that is that it relates to estrogen somehow, and estrogen, of course, is something that if you modify that early in life during the differentiation of the brain, you can have permanent kinds of consequences. Or if you modify testosterone early in life, you can have permanent consequences.

If we’re talking about schizophrenia, there’s not so much of a different incidence or prevalence in males and females, but the schizophrenic syndrome manifests very differently by gender. If you think about things like attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder, again, something that we really don’t understand in terms of its etiology, it has a higher prevalence in boys than girls, whereas Alzheimer’s disease has a higher prevalence in women than in men; at least, most studies would say that. So you see these very, very clear gender differences, and these are things that are very likely to translate back into epigenetic changes that differ [between males and females], changes in HPA axis programming, which are different in males versus females, or hormonal changes that occur very early in life.

AHEARN: Dr. Cory-Slechta, what’s to be done with this growing body of research we have on the fetal basis of adult disease?

CORY-SLECHTA: Well, let me take it a couple directions. One, I think it will tell us a lot about what we need to do better maternal health, maternal screening, in terms of preventing these kinds of effects that might lead to later diseases and disorders in children. With respect to experimental exposures, we really haven’t had the data to be able to incorporate this kind of information into risk assessment paradigms. Once it comes there will really be policy issues about how we’re going to deal with this kind of information. What would it mean with respect to exposure levels that are safe? How much would it cost to decrease those kinds of exposures? So it can have a lot of those sorts of implications above and beyond the scientific data that comes out of these studies.

AHEARN: What makes you want to study the fetal basis of adult disease?

CORY-SLECHTA: Well, it’s a really interesting area because it’s this connection between something that happens early on and something later in life. I hope it’s, as I said before, going to really allow us to understand how environmental chemicals influence health or lead to diseases and disorders. I think without that understanding we may be underestimating the risks that are actually posed by environmental chemicals, because we don’t understand or we aren’t aware at this point of whether they are having these kinds of influences. I think it’s a really exciting area of research. It may hold a lot of answers to things that have eluded us for a long time.

AHEARN: So you’re in this for the long haul.

CORY-SLECHTA: Oh yeah, I think it’s a great area of research. It just has a lot of promise for better understanding of human diseases and disorders, and that’s why you’re in this field to begin with.

AHEARN: Dr. Cory-Slechta, thanks so much for joining me.

CORY-SLECHTA: Thank you, Ashley. Nice to be here.

AHEARN: Dr. Deborah Cory-Slechta is a professor of environmental medicine at the University of Rochester School of Medicine and Dentistry.

And that’s The Researcher’s Perspective. I’m Ashley Ahearn. Thanks for downloading!

Note

  1. David J.P. Barker first reported an association between impaired fetal growth and chronic disease later in life in the seminal article “Infant Mortality, Childhood Nutrition, and Ischaemic Heart Disease in England and Wales” [Lancet 327(8489):1077–1081 (1986)]. Barker’s hypothesis is sometimes called the thrifty phenotype hypothesis.

Environmental Health Perspectives recently posted an excellent podcast interview, titled Neurobehavioral Effects of Artificial Food Dyes,” with Bernard Weiss:

“In the past several decades there has been a sharp increase in the amount of artificial dyes and flavorings children encounter daily in foods, beverages, medicines, and toiletries such as toothpaste. Over the same period there has been a marked increase in the number of diagnoses of neurobehavioral disorders such as attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder. Bernard Weiss began studying potential links between artificial food dyes and neurobehavioral effects in children in the late 1970s. In this podcast he discusses some of his earliest research and tells why he remains convinced the two are connected. Weiss is a professor in the Department of Environmental Medicine at the University of Rochester Medical Center.

You can listen to the podcast and read the transcript here.

You can link to an illuminating podcast interview, titled “Better Living Through Chemistryfrom the Physicians for Social Responsibility (PSR), here.

Here is PSR’s brief description of the interview:

We depend on chemicals in consumer products to perform as expected, and to be safe. But our regulatory system is not adequately protecting us from potential hazards in our food cans, diapers, shower curtains, baby bottles, and other consumer products. Listen to Washington State PSR President, Dr. Steven Gilbert, a toxicologist, together with pediatric urologist and Phsicians for Social Responsibility (“PSR”) board member Dr. Rich Grady, discuss chemicals policy in an illuminating radio interview, touching on “chemical trespass,” the precautionary approach to chemical regulation, and the importance of state-level policy change. They also discuss the federal bills, currently before Congress, intended to modernize the Toxic Substances Control Act — including the need to strengthen these bills. The interview was aired on Seattle radio station KEXP on June 19, 2010.

Listen to the interview here (mp3, 10 MB).

From Living On Earth (portions of a fascinating radio discussion of the latest attempt to overhaul the U.S.’s anemic laws on governing toxic chemicals):

YOUNG: It’s our recycled edition of Living on Earth – I’m Jeff Young.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, 74 billion pounds of chemicals are produced or imported into the United States each day. That’s more than 240 pounds of chemicals for every man, woman and child in the country. And that doesn’t even include chemicals used in drugs, foods, fuels or pesticides.

The federal law that’s supposed to protect people and the environment from industrial chemicals is more than three decades old. And consumer and environmental groups, the EPA, even manufacturers agree—the current regulations are long over due for reform. Living on Earth’s senior correspondent Bruce Gellerman reports from Washington.

GELLERMAN: In the Living on Earth broadcast studio on Capitol Hill I’m surrounded by things made from chemicals. The walls and floor are carpeted, the ceiling is insulated tile, my desk is painted, I’ve got a plastic bottle, my pens and printer are filled with ink, there’s a pile of alkaline batteries. And just look around. Chances are you too are also surround by products made with industrial chemicals.

WALLS: Our products, our industry’s products touch 96 percent of all manufactured goods.

GELLERMAN: That’s Michael Walls—Vice President of Technology and Regulatory Affairs with the American Chemistry Council. It’s a trade group representing the nation’s largest chemical manufacturers.

WALLS: You’re talking about an industry that is vital for the national defense. It’s vital to the health and safety of all Americans. You’re talking about the solutions to some of our global problems like climate change, you know, reducing CO2 emissions is fundamentally a chemistry problem.

GELLERMAN: There are over 82 thousand industrial chemicals registered for use in the United States and that number is increasing by about 700 new chemicals a year—that concerns health advocate Andy Ingrejas.

INGREJAS: It’s true that chemicals are used in almost everything. There’s lots of benefits from chemicals. But I think for most people that’s all the more reason why we should know what’s going on with them.

GELLERMAN: Ingrejas is campaign director of Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families. It’s a coalition of 200 organizations campaigning for changes in the federal law regulating industrial chemicals.

INGREJAS: Chemicals on the market right now are effectively unregulated. The federal government has not reviewed their safety and said, ‘oh okay…this is okay to be used in all these ways.’ They have not done that. It’s nothing like what we do for drugs.

GELLERMAN: For drugs, manufacturers must prove to the Food and Drug Administration that their chemical compounds are safe.

But under the federal law known as TSCA—the Toxic Substances Control Act—industrial chemicals are automatically considered safe. It’s up to the government to prove they’re not. Senate Democrat Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey has proposed a bill that would radically overhaul TSCA. California Democrat Henry Waxman is leading the effort in the House.

WAXMAN: The Toxic Substances Control Act was adopted in 1976 and it has never been revised, but no one thinks it’s working, even the industry realizes the law needs to be revised.

DOOLEY: Clearly we’re committed to the safe use of our products.

GELLERMAN: Former Congressman Calvin Dooley is head of the American Chemistry Council.

DOOLEY: We think TSCA has been working very well, but we also recognize that after 30 years that there’s opportunities to even enhance it’s effectiveness and utilizing some of the new science and technology to even do a more accurate assessment and comprehensive assessment of the safety of chemicals.

GELLERMAN: This represents a major shift in the Chemistry Council’s position—a reaction to growing public concern over environmental toxins. Previously, the Council advocated voluntary measures, but in recent months, congressional and EPA staffers, advocacy groups and industry representatives have been meeting to work out the many technical details for overhauling TSCA. Michael Walls of the Chemistry Council has participated in those sessions.

WALLS: I think that’s what’s remarkable about this issue is that at this stage in the discussion there is a consensus that maybe we can do something. But it’s in the details where the hard work still needs to be done.

GELLERMAN: The devil is in the definitions. Right now, in order for the government to regulate a chemical the EPA has to prove it poses—quote—”an ‘unnecessary risk’ to people or the environment.” Jane Houlihan, vice president for Research at the Environmental Working Group says that’s the first thing that needs to be changed.

HOULIHAN: Under the current system chemicals are innocent until proven guilty and the new proposals would flip that, there would be a burden of proof. Industry would need to provide proof to EPA that the chemicals are safe enough to use.

GELLERMAN: The new standard would require companies to demonstrate—quote—”a reasonable certainty of no harm.” That’s the same standard the federal government now uses to regulate pesticides. The American Chemistry Council agrees the burden of proof should be on manufactures, but president Cal Dooley cautions that adopting the “no harm” standard could hamper innovation.

DOOLEY: You know, I think the question’s now is really in terms of, how do you define that standard? And I think that’s the public policy challenge that we face…. is: what is that risk standard that we’re willing to accept?

GELLERMAN: And how is that standard set and met? Today, the United States is the only developed country in the world that does not require a chemical maker to submit safety data before production. But without the data, how can the EPA determine risk or harm? Again Jane Houlihan of The Environmental Working Group:

HOULIHAN: One thing we have in federal law now is a requirement for companies to submit studies—that they happen to do—there is no requirement to submit studies. If the company determines that that study indicates a significant risk to human health or the environment. Now that’s the company’s interpretation of whether that is a significant risk. If they say, “yeah we think it’s a significant risk” then they submit that study to the EPA. But it’s their discretion.

GELLERMAN: Right now, the EPA has just 90 days to review a new chemical before a company can start selling it. And in only 15 percent of those products does the manufacturer provide the agency with any health and safety studies.

HOULIHAN: It’s such a weak law that EPA has used it to get off the market or set restrictions for only five chemicals or chemical families in the history of the law. They’ve only required testing for about 200 chemicals or chemical mixtures. Now compare that to the 82 thousand chemicals that are registered for use in the U.S. and you see that they are only able to tackle a tiny fraction of what’s on the market.

GELLERMAN: The last time the EPA tried to ban a chemical under TSCA was 1991. That was asbestos, a known carcinogen, responsible for nearly ten thousand deaths a year in the United States. Asbestos is still used in consumer products. That’s because according to federal law the EPA must use the least burdensome option, of all other possible actions, to reduce risk, so banning asbestos is simply not an option.

The proposed Safe Chemicals Act would require companies to provide basic health and safety data for each chemical they produce. It would also create a list of the most dangerous products on the market and give the EPA expanded powers to regulate them. Congressman Henry Waxman wants to go even further. He says manufacturers should have to show how exposure to chemicals affect people in real life.

WAXMAN: I think the approach that we often take that we’re going to look at chemical-by-chemical leads us nowhere. We’ve got to get it on a much faster time frame and look at not just one chemical but the impact of a number of different chemicals in combination.

GELLERMAN: Researchers say environmental exposure to chemicals may be responsible for up to 35 percent of asthma cases, ten percent of cancers, and 20 percent of neurological disorders. But which chemicals? What products? Under current law manufacturers can claim confidentiality; they can keep their ingredients secret. Congressman Henry Waxman:

WAXMAN: People who buy curtains or other products that have chemicals in them have no idea that they may be exposing themselves and their loved ones to something that could cause cancer or other disease. So there is no rationality to the regulation at the federal level to protect the public, to make sure that industry has the rules under which they must operate and to make particularly clear that we want to watch out for the interests of our children who are even more susceptible to toxic chemicals.

GELLERMAN: Proposed updates to the Toxic Substances Control Act would do just that. In the future, chemical companies would have to consider the affects their products have on especially vulnerable populations including women, children, people of color and those living near chemical factories. After decades of failed attempts, Congress is now putting the overhaul of TSCA on the fast track. Congressman Waxman hopes the house will vote on it before Memorial Day, and Cal Dooley, the head of the American Chemistry Council is cautiously optimistic.

DOOLEY: You know when you look at the political environment today, you look at the complexity of this issue is that the stars would have to align in order to see action, I think, this year.

GELLERMAN: But many states and cities are not waiting for the stars to align. In the absence of federal action a growing number of local governments are moving to restrict, and in some cases ban chemicals the EPA now lacks the ability to effectively regulate. For Living on Earth. I’m Bruce Gellerman.

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The entire transcript, links to the podcast, and images can all be found here.

From the Maine Public Broadcasting Network:

Maine is among just a handful of states that require manufacturers to report the use of certain chemicals in their products. It also has the earliest deadine for companies to report. This week the results are in, and more than 650 products are on the list. Business representatives and state regulators say the reported presence of the chemicals does not indicate there’s a risk present. But health advocates say the list will help consumers protect their health from chemicals that leach out of products.

Listen to the four minute story here.

More.


From Living On Earth (Bruce Gellerman):

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GELLERMAN: . . .Mossville, Louisiana is one of the most polluted places in the nation. More than a dozen industrial plants spew millions of pounds of toxic chemicals a year into the environment. When the federal government failed to act, residents of Mossville sued the U.S. for not protecting their environmental human rights. Last year, the community – mostly African American – caught a break when the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights made the historic decision to hear their case. Now, Mossville residents may have caught another legal break, as Living on Earth and Planet Harmony’s Ike Sriskandarajah reports.

SRISKANDARAJAH: Six years ago Christine Bennett made her first trip to her nation’s capital to file a human rights complaint against her government.

BENNETT: Being here in Washington DC, going to make a petition is one thing. But it’s whether or not we’re going to be heard is the most important thing. Will somebody do something about it or are we just wasting our time?

SRISKANDARAJAH: Bennett and her neighbors have been waiting a long time. The story of their rights not being protected goes back generations. Emancipated slaves settled the bayous of Mossville, Louisiana. They had land, but no voting rights to protect it. After World War 2, plastics companies found little resistance to building factories in these disenfranchised black neighborhoods. Fourteen of those petrochemical plants ring the town today.

BENNETT: I’m living where my grandparents lived and I am one of the fourth generations. But now the place that was once so beautiful and so clean is now a dump.

SRISKANDARAJAH: Each year the air is loaded with four million pounds of carcinogens, earning this place the nickname “Cancer Alley.” Government researchers have measured three times the national average of dioxin in the bodies of Mossville residents. They argue that there are no environmental justice laws on our books to protect America’s most vulnerable communities. So that’s the case they took to the Inter-American Commission, a last line of defense for human rights in the Western Hemisphere. The U.S. Government fought this arguing that the U.S. has plenty of environmental laws that protect its citizens. But last year, in an interview with Living on Earth, the head of the Environmental Protection Agency, Lisa Jackson, seemed to agree with the people of Mossville.

JACKSON: I think the Mossville case is a really interesting one because what the petitioners argue as I understand it is in order to get heard is that they basically had to make the case that the laws of this country do not provide them an opportunity for redress. And it is true that at this point there are no environmental justice laws; there’s nothing on the books that gives us the ability to do it.

SRISKANDARAJAH: It was what the community of Mossville had been waiting to hear: A high-ranking Government official agreeing with the main argument in their case. Administrator Jackson is the first African American EPA head and she’s from Louisiana. Since she took the job, she has made environmental justice a priority of her agency. But even apparent support from Administrator Jackson didn’t put the human rights petition in the clear.

HARDEN: I think no one in Mossville operates under the assumption that everything will be great without struggle because that hasn’t been their experience.

SRISKANDARAJAH: That’s Monique Harden. She’s the lawyer for the people of Mossville and has been making the case that they have to go outside of the U.S. to resolve their human rights abuses. The State Department argues back that the citizens can still appeal within the American legal system. To Harden, Administrator Jackson’s comment seemed to bolster the Mossville case.

BENNETT: Her statement was just very positive and very affirming and so when we read a few months later the brief that was filed by the U.S. government countering that, we felt that, well, the right hand doesn’t know what the left hand is doing here because we’ve got the person in charge of environmental protection of the United States agreeing with the Mossville human rights petition and we’ve got others within the U.S. government saying, it isn’t so.

SRISKANDARAJAH: Harden included Jackson’s statement in briefs she filed to the Commission last March, but the government hasn’t responded. The EPA and the State Department both declined to talk to Living on Earth as well. So we asked someone who advises on environmental human rights cases what this means. Barbara Johnston is a Senior Research Fellow for the Center for Political Ecology in Santa Cruz, California. She says the government’s silence speaks volumes.

JOHNSTON: I think there’s a minor war occurring (laughs) with all sorts of skirmishes over where our priorities are, whether we are actually going to actually demonstrate that we are indeed a nation that has great and huge concern of environmental justice, especially in cases of demonstrated environmental racism versus our economic liability. Because if the U.S. comes out with a petition that acknowledges its liability in this particular case, there is a very, very, very, very long list of injured parties out there.

SRISKANDARAJAH: Which would make environmental justice a very, very, very expensive proposition. But environmental human rights lawyer Monique Harden says it may be expensive but that would be the cost of living in a society that values all citizens and neighborhoods equally.

HARDEN: What so often happens, in communities that are struggling for environmental justice, is that they’re in dialogue mode but there’s no remedy. And a favorable decision by the Commission would create a different paradigm for what governmental regulation of the environment should look like.

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More.

Links

From This American Life, an outstanding 3-part story, “Game Changer,” about natural gas in Pennsylvania:

A professor in Pennsylvania makes a calculation, to discover that his state is sitting atop a massive reserve of natural gas—enough to revolutionize how America gets its energy. But another professor in Pennsylvania does a different calculation and reaches a troubling conclusion: that getting natural gas out of the ground poses a risk to public health. Two men, two calculations, and two very different consequences.

Prologue.

Host Ira Glass tells the stories of two professors, each making a calculation that no one had made before. One gets acclaim. One ends up out of a job. The first, , , a geologist at Penn State, was estimating the amount of natural gas that’s recoverable from the Marcellus shale, a giant rock formation that’s under Pennsylvania and several other Eastern states. The second, , Conrad “Dan” Volz, at the University of Pittsburgh, estimated how much toxic crap—chemicals and pollution from gas exploration—might be getting into water supplies. (6 1/2 minutes)

Act One. You’ve Got Shale.

Producer Sarah Koenig continues the story Terry Engelder and Dan Volz, their rival calculations about natural gas in Pennsylvania, and how each was treated by his university. She explains how Pennsylvania’s universities, politicans and industry have united to develop natural gas. Other states have been more cautious. (26 1/2 minutes)

Act Two. Ground War.

Sarah takes us to Mt. Pleasant, PA, where a gas exploration company called Range Resources has leased 95% of the township’s land. This led to a standoff between Mt. Pleasant and Range, starting with zoning disputes and ending in a full scale PR war—a war in which the town was seriously outgunned. (23 1/2 minutes)

Listen to the full story here.

 

 

From Yale 360 (by Elizabeth Grossman):

New York City’s low-income neighborhoods and California’s Salinas Valley, where 80 percent of the United States’ lettuce is grown, could hardly be more different. But scientists have discovered that children growing up in these communities — one characterized by the rattle of subway trains, the other by acres of produce and vast sunny skies — share a pre-natal exposure to pesticides that appears to be affecting their ability to learn and succeed in school.

Three studies undertaken independently, but published simultaneously last month, show that prenatal exposure to organophosphate pesticides — sprayed on crops in the Salinas Valley and used in Harlem and the South Bronx to control cockroaches and other insects — can lower children’s IQ by an average of as much as 7 points. While this may not sound like a lot, it is more than enough to affect a child’s reading and math skills and cause behavioral problems with potentially long-lasting impacts, according to the studies.

“This is not trivial,” said Virginia Rauh, one of the study authors, speaking from Columbia University, where she is deputy director of the university’s Center for Children’s Environmental Health and professor of population and family health. What is particularly significant, she said, is that these studies involved so many children from such different communities, yet produced consistent evidence of the pesticides’ effects on cognitive skills and short-term memory.

Rauh said that the new studies were prompted by the long-standing awareness of the neurotoxicity of these pesticides on animals and the chemicals’ widespread use. Given science’s growing knowledge about the measurable effects of neurotoxic chemicals and elements, such as lead, on children’s cognition and behavior, the three recent studies were a logical next step in such research, Rauh explained.

The studies in New York and California were a continuation of research that has been ongoing for 12 years. Two of the studies, led by researchers at Columbia University and the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York City, looked at more than 660 children, ages six to nine, living in the South Bronx, Harlem, and other inner city neighborhoods. The New York mothers were exposed primarily indoors, as they lived in buildings where these pesticides were used in public areas and inside apartments. Previous studies of pregnant women in the same New York City neighborhoods had found organophosphate pesticides in all indoor air samples and in the majority of umbilical cord blood taken from these women when they gave birth.

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Learning more about the specific mechanisms by which individual chemicals act — and and the effects they trigger — can point the way to which insecticides should be banned. In their next studies, Rauh and her colleagues plan to follow the children in their study group as they progress through school, using brain-imaging studies, blood analysis, and continued intellectual testing. Engel’s group plans to examine additional genetic factors that may help explain susceptibility to organophosphates.

Two generations after the U.S. stopped widely using the pesticides that Rachel Carson wrote about in Silent Spring, scientists are just beginning to get a distinct picture of how replacement pesticides are affecting the health of children. “We now have additional safety regulations for pesticides,” says Lanphear, ”but that doesn’t mean they’re safe.”

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More.


Listen to TreeHugger Radio podcast interview of Elizabeth Grossman via iTunes, or just click here to listen, right-click to download.

From Tavis Smiley Radio:

This week the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, better known as the E.P.A, celebrates its 40th anniversary. From that time to the present, America’s environmental history has seen both dramatic events and undergone remarkable progress. But while we’ve made great strides in the ongoing environmental movement, Administrator Jackson believes much more can be done.

Tavis Smiley interviews EPA Administrator Lisa P. Jackson in the following podcast.

Vodpod videos no longer available.

From All Things Considered (portions of a radio news story discussing a recent Nature article challenging the conventional wisdom about genetic inheritance):

We can’t change the genes we received from our parents. But our genes are controlled by a kind of instruction manual made up of billions of chemical markers on our DNA, and those instructions can be rewritten by our circumstances — for instance, by obesity. According to the new research, they can even be passed along to children.

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The Grammar Of DNA

[Andy] Feinberg thinks he knows how this may be happening. It’s an example of an “epigenetic” effect, which is his specialty.

This field — epigenetics — is getting a lot of attention these days. It refers to things in and around our DNA, such as billions of chemical markers that attach to it. Those markers are signals that turn genes on and off. They tell the genes of a liver cell to behave differently from genes in a blood cell, for instance.

The sequence of our DNA — the human genome — has been called the book of life. Feinberg has his own metaphor for the billions of added signals that he studies. If the genetic sequence is the words of the book, the epigenome is the grammar, he says. “It helps to tell what the genes are actually supposed to do, and puts them in context.”

Our genes don’t change, or if they do, it’s a rare and random event. But the grammar of the epigenome is changing all the time. It can also be disrupted by chemicals we eat or breathe.

Apparently it can also be disrupted by obesity, because Feinberg thinks those fat dad rats in Australia created sperm cells with a different pattern of epigenetic marks on their DNA; that’s how the effect showed up in their children.

Michael Skinner at Washington State University in Pullman says epigenetic effects are swinging the pendulum of scientific attention from the genetic code back toward the impact of environment.

“I think that we’re eventually going to have sort of a merger of this,” he says. “I think that we’re going to have an appreciation of the fact that there is an environmental influence on biology that probably through more epigenetic mechanisms. There’s also a baseline genetic element of biology. And the two combined will actually give us more information about how things work.”

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The entire story, the podcast, and related links can all be found here.

From Living On Earth (portions of an insteresting radio discussion of New York’s attempt New York to revive a 1976 law requiring manufacturers to disclose chemical ingredients in household cleaners):

GELLERMAN: These days, finding out the chemicals in household cleaners is hit or miss. But 35 years ago, the New York legislature decided it was time for manufacturers of cleaning products to come clean and reveal their ingredients. The law was never enforced though – that is, until now. The New York Department of Environmental Conservation is dusting off that long forgotten law and holding hearings on how to implement it. Urvashi Rangan is an environmental scientist and Director of Technical Policy for Consumer’s Union. Thanks for joining us.

RANGAN: Oh you’re so welcome; it’s a pleasure to be here.

GELLERMAN: So how is it that a 35 year-old law requiring disclosure of chemicals in products has never been enforced?

RANGAN: Yeah, it’s not really clear how it was never enforced. A group called Earth Justice, which is an environmental law firm actually came upon the statute and filed suit against four large cleaning manufacturers, to force them to disclose the ingredients on their formulations. They did not win that lawsuit, but they began efforts to encourage the Department of Environmental Conservation in New York to enforce the law in and of themselves.

GELLERMAN: So what are the benefits of disclosure? I mean, why disclose?

RANGAN: Most consumers think what they pull off the supermarket shelves is safe, or has been demonstrated as being safe. They would be surprised to learn that a number of the ingredients that are used in cleaning products today may not be as safe as they think. Beyond that, consumers want to be able to purchase the safest products on the market. And, without full ingredient disclosure, they simply can’t make informed or comparative choices.

GELLERMAN: What about federal laws? Aren’t there federal laws requiring disclosure of chemicals in compounds?

RANGAN: There are some federal laws regarding incredibly hazardous materials used in cleaning products. If you have a hazardous material, or the product itself is hazardous, you have to use certain types of labels. If you have an antibacterial cleaner, or a disinfectant, it’s actually a pesticidal product, and the active ingredients in these pesticidal products, have to be disclosed.

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GELLERMAN: More and more products are making a virtue out of using the quote, unquote, natural ingredients. I’m trying to find out what “natural” means, and, according to federal law, it’s kind of meaningless.

RANGAN: Yeah, unfortunately, the natural label is almost one of the top green-washing terms for us. There are very few standards behind what that term means. It only necessarily might mean that something came from a natural source. But, you can extract something from a plant and you can also chemically react that into an ingredient. And so, that term is very loosey goosey, and consumers shouldn’t rely on that term without doing some additional homework. Non-toxic is another one of those labels that just has no standards behind it and no verification what so ever.

And, in fact, in a report we did on cleaners and reported that non-toxic had no standardized meaning, we heard back from a company who sent us a lot of documentation to support their use of non-toxic. In review of that documentation, we actually came upon a carcinogen that’s used in the product, and so, it’s just sort of highlights how companies can use that term really any which way they want to, even if they have a little bit of carcinogen in their product to.

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The entire transcript, links to the podcast, and related links can all be found here.

“Reflections of a Pioneer,” with Theo Colborn: In the 1950s biologists began noticing unusual behavior and various reproductive health problems in wild animals. Environmental health analyst Theo Colborn was one of the first to start asking what those trends might mean for humans.

You can listen to the podcast by clicking here.

Transcript:

AHEARN: It’s The Researcher’s Perspective. I’m Ashley Ahearn.

Today we mark the 40th anniversary of Earth Day by talking with a scientist whose study of the wildlife around the Great Lakes began a passionate—and sometimes controversial—journey toward understanding the chemicals known as endocrine disruptors.

Since the ’50s biologists had been noticing some weird behavior in wild animals.

Gulls in Lake Ontario abandoning their nests. Alligators in a lake in Florida laying eggs that weren’t hatching. In Southern California female western gulls were nesting with other females.

And then in the St. Lawrence River in Canada a male beluga whale washed up, and scientists, when they opened him up, were shocked to discover that he had a uterus and ovaries.

Environmental health analyst Theo Colborn was one of the first to connect the dots between the various reproductive health problems in wildlife—and then start asking the questions about what those trends might mean for humans.

In 1996, she co-authored the book Our Stolen Future, which laid out the concept of endocrine-disrupting chemicals and ignited a major movement in environmental health research.

Dr. Theo Colborn now heads The Endocrine Disruption Exchange in Paonia, Colorado, and she’s professor emeritus at the University of Florida in Gainesville.

Dr. Colborn, thanks for joining me.

COLBORN: Oh it’s great to be with you.

AHEARN: Let’s start with endocrine disruptors. You refer to them as “hand-me-down poisons.” What is that? What are they?

COLBORN: Well basically they are chemicals that have been around for quite a while, we just didn’t know what they were doing. But they can be passed from the mother to her child when it is in the womb, and these can actually alter how the individual develops. Keep in mind that, you know, practically every day from the minute the sperm enters the egg something has to take place: cells begin to split, then actually cells begin to form a ball. The next thing you know, they’re forming the tissue that’s going to become the intestinal tract, the brains, the bones. It’s all there, and if the chemical—one of these chemicals—gets into that chemical mix that’s controlling how we are constructed, it can interfere with the construction of that system.

And the other thing is the damage may not be expressed until they reach adulthood so it’s a very, very difficult situation in a human population to make a link between any particular chemical and any of these alterations that might have taken place in their body.

AHEARN: Now, when we say “endocrine-disrupting chemicals,” what types of chemicals are we talking about specifically?

COLBORN: Well we’re talking about chemicals that are— If you look around you where you’re sitting right now you’re probably in a studio; practically everything in here is made of plastic. They’re in plastics. They’re in our toys, the children’s toys. If you go to your kitchen sink and under your bathroom sink and look at the cleaning compounds that are there, the cosmetics, the toiletries—they’re just about in everything because they’ve made every one of these products much nicer; they last longer. They’re preservatives. They’re fire retardants.

AHEARN: So Dr. Colborn, when you were an environmental health analyst with the Conservation Foundation back in the late ’80s, tell me what you were seeing and what kind of turned you on to the concept of reproductive health problems in the environment.

COLBORN: Basically I was working on an environmental health assessment of the Great Lakes requested by the International Joint Commission from Canada and the United States. They were very concerned because although they had cleaned up the lakes from physical chemical mess and debris along the shoreline and had stopped the fires in the rivers that were leading into the lakes, the animals around the Great Lakes were not thriving, and these animals were not able to reproduce. Some of the populations actually had been extirpated. But it was interesting, it was among the, among the egg-laying species—the birds, the fish, and the reptiles—where we found that if they were able to reproduce, the chicks in the eggs didn’t hatch. Fish in the Great Lakes weren’t reaching sexual maturity. I have pictures of female and male Coho salmon, and you can’t tell them apart. The thyroid problem persisted. The thyroids actually were constructed differently, and they were functioning differently, although the animals seemed to be swimming and flying like they should. Behavioral changes in the animals: they did not take care of their offspring. Lack of parenting, female–female pairing, males flying off in fraternities and not protecting the nests. And it was sort of an endless list of the kinds of disorders that we were seeing in the animals. And in every one of the studies, practically, that were done, the concentrations of the organochlorine chemicals—now, these are persistent chemicals that build up in body fat, and remember these animals were all at the top of the food web, just like we are—the chemicals in the water, from the Lake Superior to the bald eagle who came and sat on the tree on the shoreline, actually biomagnified 100 million times.

We began to realize that the toxicological testing that we had been doing to test these PCBs, the pesticides—the organochlorine pesticides—did not include looking at what took place in the womb, and it was very apparent that the female animals were transporting or sharing basically the chemicals in their bodies, dumping them into their eggs and right into that environment. And then the few mammal species we looked at, again, we found the same problem.

AHEARN: So tell me now, do you think that what you were seeing in animals, are we seeing similar results or similar effects in human beings?

COLBORN: Well, we’re certainly seeing an epidemic of thyroid problems in the nation, but it’s this growing list, and I’m going to start with the A’s. You know we’ve got autism, which the link has definitely not been made yet, but it looks like they’re closing in on that. But we’ve got ADHD. We have childhood cancers, early childhood diabetes, and then the adult onset of diabetes. Obesity problems. You’ve got endometriosis, where we begin to look at the reproductive tract where things don’t develop normally. Early onset of testicular cancer in young men. Prostate and breast cancer in the aging community. Then there’s Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s. Many of these disorders now have been traced back to prenatal or very early postnatal exposure, while we’re developing, when all that activity is going on, where all these vital systems that we depend upon for the rest of our life, that will basically help us function at those particular periods in our life as we mature, they’re all being interfered with.

AHEARN: I’d like you to read a section of your book Our Stolen Future now. It’s the part on page 238.

COLBORN: Well I do have to give credit to Diane Dumanovsky for this because Diane wrote every word in this book.

AHEARN: She’s your co-author, right.

COLBORN: She was my co-author, yeah, that’s right. She wrote:

“Some might find irony in the prospect that humans in their restless quest for dominance over nature may be inadvertently undermining their own ability to reproduce or to learn and think. They may see poetic justice in the possibility that we have become [unwitting] guinea pigs in our own vast experiment with synthetic chemicals. But in the end it is hard to regard such a chemical assault on our children and their potential for a full life as anything but profoundly sad. Chemicals that disrupt hormone messages have the power to rob us of rich possibilities that have been the legacy of our species and indeed, the essence of our humanity.”

AHEARN: Some called Our Stolen Future the next generation of Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring. I’m wondering, could you tell me a little bit about how your findings, how this book on endocrine-disrupting chemicals was received when it came out?

COLBURN: Well it was interesting, I’ve always said that if Rachel Carson only had lived a few years more she would have discovered this then, and we wouldn’t be in quite the predicament we’re in today. We picked up some very, very elegant attacks. Very outright, straightforward, that this was pure junk science. I guess I didn’t take any of it personally, and I didn’t let it worry me, but that same kind of very sophisticated public relations effort is still going on today. The same scientists that were hired to debunk our book have been hired to debunk climate change. I see the names coming up all the time. So they don’t have the battery of people behind them or scientists anymore, like we do for endocrine disruption. What’s happened is the whole concept and all of the assumptions that come with looking at the endocrine system and how it functions has now been picked up by scientists around the world. And I’m not worried that this issue is going to get buried because of opposition or suppression, because you can’t keep scientists from telling the truth and seeking the truth.

AHEARN: Dr. Colborn, thank you so much for joining me.

COLBORN: Oh Ashley, it was a pleasure to talk to you.

AHEARN: Dr. Theo Colborn is the founder and president of the nonprofit group The Endocrine Disruption Exchange and co-author of the book Our Stolen Future.

AHEARN: And that’s The Researcher’s Perspective. I’m Ashley Ahearn. Thanks for downloading!

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