Common Chemicals Dangerous to Humans in Early Development

Pregnant Woman
Scientists warn of the effects of common chemicals on babies in the early stages of development.

Scientists from around the world have issued a declaration cautioning that exposure to certain common chemicals before and soon after birth increases the chances of health problems later in life, including diabetes, attention deficit disorders, prostate cancer, fertility problems, thyroid disorders, and obesity. Chemicals found in everyday items like plastic food and beverage containers, cosmetics, and flame retardants may pose little-to-no risk for adults but can be damaging to fetuses and newborns, they conclude.

Some 200 toxicologists, pediatricians, epidemiologists, and other experts convened at the International Conference on Fetal Programming and Developmental Toxicity in late May in the Faroe Islands in the North Atlantic. Their consensus statement about the dangers of many common chemicals included an international call to action. “Reducing exposure would lead to tremendous benefits,” Dr. Bruce Lanphear, director of the Environmental Health Center at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center, told the Los Angeles Times. “We shouldn’t wait for an epidemic to fully mature before we develop policies to protect children.”

The scientists noted that for centuries, the rule of toxicology has been “the dose makes the poison,” but the new paradigm suggests that “the timing makes the poison”—in other words, exposure at certain stages of life can be more detrimental than at others. Of particular concern is the latest animal research suggesting that chemical exposure during early development can turn “on” or “off” genes that predispose people to disease. The alterations can be permanent and passed on to subsequent generations.

One of the unhealthy chemicals listed in the statement is bisphenol A, which is found in polycarbonate plastic food and water containers and “can increase the incidence of reproductive abnormalities, metabolic disorders, including obesity and diabetes, and cancer,” according to the declaration. Brominated flame retardants and phthalates used in some cosmetics and soft plastic items are other substances that may cause harm.

“We have absolutely solid evidence [about the negative health effects of] certain chemicals—lead, methyl mercury, PCBs, arsenic, and the organophosphate pesticides,” Dr. Philip Landrigan with the Mount Sinai School of Medicine told the Los Angeles Times. “We know with great certainty that prenatal exposure to any of these materials can damage the developing brain with resulting lifelong loss of intelligence and disruption of behavior.” But there is still an “incredible gap” in knowledge, Landrigan noted, because as many as 80 percent of major chemicals in commerce have never been tested for their effects on early development.

This story was produced by Eye on Earth, a joint project of the Worldwatch Institute and the blue moon fund. View the complete archive of Eye on Earth stories, or contact Staff Writer Alana Herro at aherro [AT] worldwatch [DOT] org with your questions, comments, and story ideas.