Archive for February, 2010


Op-Ed Columnist

Do Toxins Cause Autism?

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Published: February 24, 2010

Autism was first identified in 1943 in an obscure medical journal. Since then it has become a frighteningly common affliction, with the Centers for Disease Control reporting recently that autism disorders now affect almost 1 percent of children.

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Fred R. Conrad/The New York Times

Nicholas D. Kristof

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Over recent decades, other development disorders also appear to have proliferated, along with certain cancers in children and adults. Why? No one knows for certain. And despite their financial and human cost, they presumably won’t be discussed much at Thursday’s White House summit on health care.

Yet they constitute a huge national health burden, and suspicions are growing that one culprit may be chemicals in the environment. An article in a forthcoming issue of a peer-reviewed medical journal, Current Opinion in Pediatrics, just posted online, makes this explicit.

The article cites “historically important, proof-of-concept studies that specifically link autism to environmental exposures experienced prenatally.” It adds that the “likelihood is high” that many chemicals “have potential to cause injury to the developing brain and to produce neurodevelopmental disorders.”

The author is not a granola-munching crank but Dr. Philip J. Landrigan, professor of pediatrics at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York and chairman of the school’s department of preventive medicine. While his article is full of cautionary language, Dr. Landrigan told me that he is increasingly confident that autism and other ailments are, in part, the result of the impact of environmental chemicals on the brain as it is being formed.

“The crux of this is brain development,” he said. “If babies are exposed in the womb or shortly after birth to chemicals that interfere with brain development, the consequences last a lifetime.”

Concern about toxins in the environment used to be a fringe view. But alarm has moved into the medical mainstream. Toxicologists, endocrinologists and oncologists seem to be the most concerned.

One uncertainty is to what extent the reported increases in autism simply reflect a more common diagnosis of what might previously have been called mental retardation. There are genetic components to autism (identical twins are more likely to share autism than fraternal twins), but genetics explains only about one-quarter of autism cases.

Suspicions of toxins arise partly because studies have found that disproportionate shares of children develop autism after they are exposed in the womb to medications such as thalidomide (a sedative), misoprostol (ulcer medicine) and valproic acid (anticonvulsant). Of children born to women who took valproic acid early in pregnancy, 11 percent were autistic. In each case, fetuses seem most vulnerable to these drugs in the first trimester of pregnancy, sometimes just a few weeks after conception.

So as we try to improve our health care, it’s also prudent to curb the risks from the chemicals that envelop us. Senator Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey is drafting much-needed legislation that would strengthen the Toxic Substances Control Act. It is moving ahead despite his own recent cancer diagnosis, and it can be considered as an element of health reform. Senator Lautenberg says that under existing law, of 80,000 chemicals registered in the U.S., the Environmental Protection Agency has required safety testing of only 200. “Our children have become test subjects,” he noted.

One peer-reviewed study published this year in Environmental Health Perspectives gave a hint of the risks. Researchers measured the levels of suspect chemicals called phthalates in the urine of pregnant women. Among women with higher levels of certain phthalates (those commonly found in fragrances, shampoos, cosmetics and nail polishes), their children years later were more likely to display disruptive behavior.

Frankly, these are difficult issues for journalists to write about. Evidence is technical, fragmentary and conflicting, and there’s a danger of sensationalizing risks. Publicity about fears that vaccinations cause autism — a theory that has now been discredited — perhaps had the catastrophic consequence of lowering vaccination rates in America.

On the other hand, in the case of great health dangers of modern times — mercury, lead, tobacco, asbestos — journalists were too slow to blow the whistle. In public health, we in the press have more often been lap dogs than watchdogs.

At a time when many Americans still use plastic containers to microwave food, in ways that make toxicologists blanch, we need accelerated research, regulation and consumer protection.

“There are diseases that are increasing in the population that we have no known cause for,” said Alan M. Goldberg, a professor of toxicology at the Bloomberg School of Public Health at Johns Hopkins University. “Breast cancer, prostate cancer, autism are three examples. The potential is for these diseases to be on the rise because of chemicals in the environment.”

The precautionary principle suggests that we should be wary of personal products like fragrances unless they are marked phthalate-free. And it makes sense — particularly for children and pregnant women — to avoid most plastics marked at the bottom as 3, 6 and 7 because they are the ones associated with potentially harmful toxins.


This is appaling!! Please watch it!

Wanted: Volunteers, All Pregnant – N.Y. Times 2/16/10

Wanted: Volunteers, All Pregnant

By Pam Belluck

February 16th, 2010

The woman sent by government scientists visited the Queens apartment repeatedly before finding anyone home. And the person who finally answered the door – a 30-year-old Colombian-born waitress named Alejandra – was wary.

Although Alejandra was exactly what the scientists were looking for – a pregnant woman – she was “a bit scared,” she said, about giving herself and her unborn child to science for 21 years.

Researchers would collect and analyze her vaginal fluid, toenail clippings, breast milk and other things, and ask about everything from possible drug use to depression. At the birth, specimen collectors would scoop up her placenta and even her baby’s first feces for scientific posterity.

“Nowadays there are so many scams,” Alejandra said in Spanish, and her husband, José, “initially didn’t want me to do the study.” (Scientists said research confidentiality rules required that her last name be withheld.) But she ultimately decided that participating would “help the next generation.”

Chalk one up for the scientists, who for months have been dispatching door-to-door emissaries across the country to recruit women like Alejandra for an unprecedented undertaking: the largest, most comprehensive long-term study of the health of children, beginning even before they are born.

Authorized by Congress in 2000, the National Children’s Study began last January, its projected cost swelling to about $6.7 billion. With several hundred participants so far, it aims to enroll 100,000 pregnant women in 105 counties, then monitor their babies until they turn 21.

It will examine how environment, genes and other factors affect children’s health, tackling questions subject to heated debate and misinformation. Does pesticide exposure, for example, cause asthma? Do particular diets or genetic mutations lead to autism?

“This is a very important study for understanding the health of our nation’s children and for identifying factors that may play a role downstream in adult health,” said Dr. Francis S. Collins, the director of the National Institutes of Health, which is overseeing the study.

But while the idea is praised by many experts, the study has also stirred controversy over its cost and content.

In August, the Senate committee overseeing financing for the study accused it of “a serious breach of trust” for not disclosing that the initial price tag of $3.1 billion would more than double, and said the study needed to release more information if it wanted to get “any” financing in the next budget year.

And an independent panel of experts and some members of the study’s own advisory committee say it misses important opportunities to help people and communities – emphasizing narrower medical questions over concerns like racial and ethnic health differences, leaving unresolved crucial ethical questions concerning what to tell participants and communities about test results.

“This study is of the magnitude of the accelerator in CERN, or a trip to the moon – a really big science issue,” said Milton Kotelchuck, a professor at the Boston University School of Public Health and a member of the independent panel. “But if you have a flawed beginning, then you’ve got 20 years of working on a flawed study.”

Officials are making changes, putting all but the pilot phase, to involve 37 locations, on hold while conducting an inquiry into the cost and scientific underpinnings, Dr. Collins said. Some data may no longer be collected if “we can’t afford” it, he said, and every aspect will receive “the closest possible scrutiny.”

The study is far from its plan of recruiting 250 babies a year for four or five years in each community. By December, 510 women were enrolled and 83 babies were born in the first seven locations, including Orange County, Calif., and Salt Lake County, Utah.

That was after knocking on nearly 64,000 doors, screening 27,000 women and finding 1,000 who were pregnant and in their first trimester (and therefore eligible).

Dr. Collins said there were “unexpected difficulties in the number of houses that have to be visited to get enough babies” – 40 houses per enrolled woman, instead of the expected 14.

The time and information required from families could also make the study “too burdensome to be conducted the way it is,” said Dr. Susan Shurin, former acting director of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, part of the National Institutes of Health and the study’s supervising agency. The fear is women will “go ‘Oh no, you again,’ and slam the door in your face.”

Specimens include blood, urine, hair and saliva from pregnant women, babies and fathers; dust from women’s bedsheets; tap water; and particles on carpets and baseboards. They are sent to laboratories (placentas to Rochester, N.Y., for example), prepared for long-term storage, and analyzed for chemicals, metals, genes and infections.

Participants provide the names and phone numbers of relatives and friends, so researchers can find them if they move. As children grow, scientists, including outside experts, can cross-reference information about their medical conditions, behavioral development and school performance.

Clues could emerge if, for example, developmentally disabled children in both rural Alabama and suburban California show similar genetic patterns or chemical exposure.

“The task in selling this study is going to be to say we realize that this is audacious” and “seriously hard to do, but this is hugely important,” said Dr. Ellen Wright Clayton, director of the Center for Biomedical Ethics and Society at Vanderbilt University and part of the independent panel and the study’s advisory committee. “I’m hopeful some of the deficiencies can be addressed.”

Selling the study presents different challenges everywhere.

In affluent, highly educated Waukesha County, Wis., the study is advertised on movie screens, yard signs and parade banners.

But in the hog-farm-and-Butterball-turkey-plant territory of Duplin County, N.C., where scientists have to enroll nearly a third of the 800 babies born each year, some women are “concerned about questions they may be answering and how they may sound answering those questions,” said Dr. Roland Draughn, a local obstetrician.

Nancy Dole, a co-principal investigator in Duplin, said “we had to reassure” residents that “the purpose is not to make the county look bad.”

Organizers have visited child car-seat installation events, church groups, even Latino men’s soccer teams. Some women have volunteered, even ones who are not pregnant, bringing their children to the study’s Duplin headquarters, a former video store.

But others would hesitate if approached.

“Twenty-one years, that’s a long time,” said Wanda Johnson, 37, a nursing-home aide with four children. “I may say yes, and then tomorrow, I don’t want to be bothered.”

In Queens, with over 2 million people and 30,000 births a year, recruiting 250 might seem easy. And some pregnant women, like Amy Saez, 28, said that if asked to participate, “I would totally be down with that because I’d become a part of science and history.” But recruiters confront a jumble of languages and cultures, calling telephone translation lines to communicate in Urdu, Nepalese and Russian, for example.

And they have to “knock on each and every door in a building until they learn who lives there,” said Dr. Philip Landrigan, chairman of preventive medicine at Mount Sinai medical school and the principal investigator in Queens. They buzz random apartments to get into buildings, “buttonhole people coming out, talk to doormen, supers,” he said. For recruiters’ safety, door-knocking stops at 8 p.m.

Soon, said Dr. Steven Hirschfeld, appointed the study’s director when the original leader left under criticism, new recruiting methods will be tried, including having doctors encourage patients to enroll. That was previously rejected because investigators felt doctor-referred patients would exclude some women, like those not getting prenatal care.

Besides looking at widespread conditions, like diabetes, the study will consider regional differences. Maureen Durkin, principal investigator in Waukesha County, Wis., wonders if radium in the county’s water, and houses built on “farm fields that may be contaminated with nitrates and atrazine,” have different health consequences than pollution or industrial chemicals in Queens.

Health authorities in Duplin County, N.C., are concerned about “so many hog lagoons and poop everywhere,” said Shannon Brewer, a health department nurse, who also worries that many women there fail to breastfeed because “at the turkey factory, they just can’t step out of line to pump.”

In Flushing, Queens, Alejandra, who gave birth to Isabella in August, is breastfeeding. But she said she was “afraid of the baby getting too many vaccines.” She quit smoking after getting pregnant, but her husband, 34, a golf instructor, smokes in their bathroom.

Joseph Gilbert, a study employee who has been interviewing and collecting samples from Alejandra, said study protocol limited his ability to urge participants to change health habits.

But study officials are trying to determine what information to give participants and when. Some experts say people should get results of their chemical or genetic tests only if medical treatments exist because otherwise it only causes anxiety. Others agree with Patricia O’Campo, a member of the study’s advisory committee and the independent panel, who says the study should be “less ivory towerish” and disclose more information to families and communities.

In this and other aspects of the study, “changes have to be made, and maybe some very big changes,” Dr. O’Campo said. “I think it could be so much more.”

Dabrali Jimenez contributed reporting.

Biologist Bruce Blumberg believes industrial pollutants are contributing to America’s obesity epidemic

Big on obesogens
Biologist Bruce Blumberg believes industrial pollutants are contributing to America’s obesity epidemic
Bruce Blumberg
Steve Zylius / University Communications
UCI biologist Bruce Blumberg is studying the link between industrial pollutants and obesity. Because metabolism-altering chemicals called obesogens are used in plastics, he says, foods and liquids should be stored in glass and stainless steel containers.
With obesity emerging as a leading health threat to Americans, it’s easy to blame a couch-potato culture addicted to calorie-rich foods.
But UC Irvine biologist Bruce Blumberg doesn’t believe lifestyle alone explains this growing obesity epidemic. He thinks industrial pollutants play a part too.
Blumberg is among a growing number of researchers exploring how chemicals used in plastics, food packaging, pesticides and cosmetics can trigger dramatic increases in body fat. He has even coined a word for these compounds that corrupt the normal function of metabolic hormones: obesogens.
“It makes a lot of sense that chemicals able to reprogram metabolism and favor the development of fat cells could be important contributing factors to obesity,” says Blumberg, professor of developmental & cell biology and pharmaceutical sciences. “The role of obesogens in fat accumulation raises questions about the effectiveness of just diet and exercise in helping people lose pounds and maintain a proper weight.”
Obesogen research is in its early stages but gaining widespread attention, including recent in-depth coverage in Newsweek. While it’s unclear to what degree these chemicals contribute to the obesity epidemic, what Blumberg and other researchers around the world are finding is troubling.
In ongoing studies, Blumberg has identified how obesogens target signaling proteins to tell a developing fetus to make more fat cells. This can have lifelong consequences, increasing the likelihood of body fat accumulation as a person ages and making it more difficult to lose excess weight.
Blumberg points out that it’s not known whether obesogens have the same effects on adults, but he suspects that they may have already left their mark on Americans born after World War II – when exposure to industrial chemicals became widespread.
“The causes of obesity are very complex, but if you travel to other places in the world, you’ll notice that this epidemic is predominantly American,” Blumberg says. “Elsewhere, the consumption of prepackaged foods is much lower, food is grown and eaten locally, and people are far less exposed to food additives and chemicals. These are all contributing factors.”
Until medical science can identify a way to repair obesogen-affected metabolism, he and others in this field recommend a “better safe than sorry” approach. “Use glass and stainless steel instead of plastics to store fluids and foods,” Blumberg says. “And try to get locally grown produce, organic if possible.”
He also suggests an attitudinal adjustment: “Obesity isn’t exclusively caused by personal behavior. It’s increasing despite our best efforts. If obesogen exposure causes someone to have more fat cells, or an altered metabolism, others should be more sympathetic that he or she will have to work harder to lose weight.”
Despite the difficulty of changing public – and scientific – perception, Blumberg is hopeful. “The tide is turning,” he says. “Over the past few years, acceptance of obesogens has grown, and it’s now possible to get funding for research. It’s an idea whose time has come.”

Children more likely to have attention, behavioral problems when exposed to phthalates in womb, New York study says

Did you know the current law regulating toxic chemicals was passed in 1976?

Did you know the current law regulating toxic chemicals was passed in 1976? And it hasn’t changed since, even though 20,000 new chemicals have come onto the market since then.

Go to to watch the video and sign The Declaration to stop pollution newborns.

People are polluted with hundreds of industrial chemicals. Babies are born pre-polluted with 300 industrial chemicals in their bodies when they enter the world.

We are at a tipping point, where the pollution in people is increasingly associated with a range of serious diseases and conditions from childhood cancer, to autism, ADHD, learning deficits, infertility, and birth defects.

It’s time to step up and protect our children. Tell Congress and President Obama that you won’t stand for this any longer.


Take action at Then share it with your friends. It’s up to us to protect our children and make change happen.


Activists want makers to come clean on cleansers – By Jennifer Peltz Associated Press Writer

A Toxic Century: Mining Giant Must Clean Up Mess

Back in the 1970’s, Dr. Landrigan was an investigative scientist for the Centers for Disease Control who discovered children in El Paso Texas suffered from learning disabilities because of the large lead smelting plant in the center of town.  At the time, the plant was a source of jobs and pride for the residents of El Paso, but the lead emitted from the giant smokestack was profoundly harming their children and the neighboring families in Juarez, Mexico.
BPA manufacturers and canning companies today are claiming that legislation forcing them to switch to a nontoxic alternative would cost jobs and increase food and beverage prices.   But at what price?  This same El Paso company, the American Smelting and Refining Company, announced today that they will pay $1.79 billion in settlements for the land it polluted and lives it destroyed.
One can’t help but wonder if this story foreshadows the fate of the BPA and other chemical manufacturers.  If closing companies that manufacture toxic chemicals saves lives, that seems like the right decision to me.
National Public Radio – February 4
A Toxic Century: Mining Giant Must Clean Up Mess
A landmark study by the Centers for Disease Control in the early 1970s found that more than half of the children living within a mile of the smelter had levels of lead in their blood four times today’s acceptable limit. The lead study was so influential that it contributed to the EPA’s decision in 1973 to phase lead components out of gasoline. “We found in these children who seemed to be healthy that they had reduced IQ, slowing of their reflexes, impairment of their motor coordination,” says Dr. Philip Landrigan, the epidemiologist who led the research nearly 40 years ago. “This was one of the very first demonstrations that lead could cause toxicity on the human brain in children who appeared to have no symptoms.”
-Dr. Philip Landrigan, Professor & Chair, Preventive Medicine, Director of the Children’s Environmental Health Center, Mount Sinai School of Medicine
submitted by Rhonda Sherwood