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A Safe Place to Grow

Child Abuse & Neglect

Years of research and public awareness campaigns have made it common knowledge that what happens in the womb impacts fetal development, birth outcomes, as well as neonatal and child development. Most of us however, would be surprised to hear that the uterine environment and exposure to stress, toxins, and even junk food may all be related to illness well into adulthood. In a recent New York Times Op-Ed, Nicholas Kristof discusses mounting evidence for the critical role of the fetal period in human development.

Kristof cites research on the effects of acute stress in utero during wars, famine and pandemics on later life outcomes including heart disease and schizophrenia. But it’s not just acute stress that leads to later life illness. Research has also shown that more chronic exposures to stress (e.g., poverty) can also lead to lower educational attainment, lower incomes and worse health throughout adulthood. What’s the takeaway message? We should be more careful about exposing pregnant women to unnecessary environmental stressors, including exposure to toxins in the environment.

We know that chemicals including mercury, lead, dioxins, furans, PCBs and DDT pass from mother to fetus in utero. In fact, results of a recent two-year study by Environmental Working Group show that infants were exposed to over 200 different toxic environmental pollutants while still in the womb. It’s frightening to think that a fetus is exposed to a host of dangerous substances while in its mother’s womb, but the risks don’t end there. Exposure in the womb is compounded by routine contact with a host of toxins in our environment.

What can we do about it? We can by taking more aggressive steps to protect our most vulnerable, including pregnant women and children, from exposure to harmful chemicals.

Congress can help by updating the statute that regulates chemicals used by industry and in consumer products – the Toxic Substances Control Act or TSCA. In doing so, it should make it a priority to protect the health of pregnant women, nursing women, children and other vulnerable populations by putting into place new processes to ensure the products they are routinely exposed to are safe. Specifically, Congress should modify TSCA to assess chemicals against a strong health standard that requires protection of children and other vulnerable populations; provide an additional safety margin for children, pregnant women, nursing women and women of child-bearing age; address health disparities among low-income and minority children, children with special health care needs, and children whose parents have occupational exposure to chemicals, and reduce the disproportionate impact of toxic chemicals on children and other vulnerable populations.

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