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#769 - Prenatal Exposures and Disease, 14-May-2003

Published July 17, 2003

At last, an ancient problem has been solved.

More than 2000 years ago people knew that the quality of the
natural environment affected their health. During the first
century B.C., the ancient Roman architect, Vitruvius,
highlighted the relationship of environment to disease in his
book "De Architectura."[1] However, getting hold of reliable
information on the subject remained impossible for more than
2000 years.

Even with the rise of modern science and medicine over the past
600 years, reliable information on environment and disease
remained difficult or impossible to lay hands on. Published in
obscure journals or books, stored in relatively few libraries,
and written in jargon that the public could not understand,
good information about environment and disease remained under
wraps -- accessible only to a privileged few with special
training and special access.

Now the situation is rapidly improving because of two

(1) A "scientific information movement" begun in the 1950s by
Barry Commoner and Margaret Mead and their colleagues within
the American Association for the Advancement of Science became
a broader "public interest science" movement in the 1970s
thanks to Ralph Nader and his co-workers.[2] Those pioneering
efforts have now engendered two generations of scientists who
conduct studies that serve public needs and who translate
scientific findings into terms that people can understand so
that citizens can make informed decisions; and

(2) The world wide web now allows people almost anywhere to get
their hands on reliable plain-language descriptions of
scientific and medical studies that link the environment to
human disease. Today almost anyone with access to a public
library (or a $500 home computer and a telephone) can tap into
a vast body of plain-language information explaining how
environmental contamination causes human disease. The most
exciting developments in web-based information are evolving as
we speak.

In particular, three related web sites now offer daily updates
of news stories, scientific studies, and medical reports
linking environmental contamination to human disease. See
http://www.environmentalhealthnews.org and
http://www.protectingourhealth.org/newest.htm and
http://www.ourstolenfuture.org/New/newstuff.htm .

When you dive into these three web sites, you may find yourself
thinking, as I did, "This is why everyone needs access the
world wide web!" There is simply no substitute for what these
web sites offer. Breaking news stories and current reports,
with pictures, and with hyperlinks to background information,
provide real depth of understanding. Current-awareness
information doesn't get any better than this.

These three web sites are related, but different, so it's good
to check each of them often.

The newest of the three is www.environmentalhealthnews.org.
This one provides breaking news. Every day, seven days a week,
you'll find more than a dozen current news stories from around
the nation and the world. Furthermore, the site is interactive
-- citizens can add their own news, and their own reports. This
site is still in the test phase, but it already contains a
wealth of information on environment and health.

The other two sites, somewhat older, are truly rich sources of
information. The "Our Stolen Future" site,
http://www.ourstolenfuture.org/New/newstuff.htm , is focused on
studies of hormone-disrupting chemicals and their effects on
plants and animals. Using hyperlinks, the site provides
explanatory materials that will give you all the depth you
could want as you learn about the role of hormones and other
biological signaling systems, which can be disrupted by a
growing list of industrial chemicals. My description does not
do justice to the depth of this site -- to appreciate it, you
will need to spend some time there yourself.

The third web site, maintained by CHE (the Collaborative on
Health and the Environment) --http://www.protectingourhealth.org --
offers a unique resource:
peer-reviewed overviews that evaluate the medical literature
linking environmental contamination to asthma, brain cancer,
breast cancer, childhood leukemia, endometriosis, infertility,
learning/behavior disorders, prostate cancer, and testicular
cancer. Other overviews of other diseases are in the works.
CHE's "peer-reviewed overviews" project has been guided by
physician Ted Schettler, whose books have provided convincing
evidence that children's mental development can be derailed by
exposure to low levels of chemicals in the environment.[3]

Together these web sites represent a phenomenal -- and
phenomenally useful -- intellectual tour de force. Many people
contribute to these web sites, but the chief architect and
driving energy behind all three is John Peterson ("Pete")
Myers, Ph.D., biologist and co-author of Our Stolen Future --the book
that propelled the scientific community onto its
successful search for industrial poisons that can disrupt the
fundamental signaling systems that control growth, development,
and behavior in plants and animals.[4]

When important new scientific studies appear, Pete Myers often
describes them in considerable detail -- how the study was
conducted, what it found, its relationship to previous studies
and hypotheses, and its scientific limitations. For non-experts
concerned about environment and health, this is a unique trove
of real treasure.

The web also provides a unique perspective. Browsing a paper
library can be slow and tedious. The web is fast and smooth.
When you browse a web library, new patterns jump out at you.
Recently, as I was scanning the archives of these three web
sites, I noticed that many recent studies have now confirmed
that much human disease is linked to prenatal exposures --exposures
that occur in the womb. It's as if a gun goes off
later in life, but the trigger is pulled before birth. This is
a chilling new picture of human disease. To cite but four
recent examples:

** A study published in the Journal of the American Medical
Association (JAMA) revealed that attention deficit
hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) has a real physical basis, and
that the disease may well begin in the womb.[5] F.X.
Castellanos and colleagues found that children with ADHD have
brains that are significantly smaller than the brains of
children without ADHD. Furthermore, they concluded that the
events initiating ADHD are likely to occur in the womb.

** Lennart Hardell and his colleagues reported in Environmental
Health Perspectives in June that there is a strong association
between young men who get testicular cancer and the levels of
long-lived organochlorine pesticides measurable in their
mother's blood (but, importantly, not in the blood of the men
themselves).[6] Exposure in the womb seems crucial in the
development of many testicular cancers.

** In April, Linda Birnbaum and Suzanne Fenton reviewed a wide
array of animal and human studies, concluding that exposure to
hormone-disrupting chemicals in early development can cause
cancer and/or increase sensitivity to cancer-causing agents
later in life.[7] They point out that the danger of prenatal
exposures is firmly established in the medical literature, yet
few human studies have made use of the information. For
example, most breast cancer studies have measured chemicals in
the blood of women at the time they were diagnosed with cancer
-- probably the wrong time to be looking for a connection
between chemicals and cancer, Birnbaum and Fenton suggest. The
critical exposure likely occurred many years earlier. If you
look for answers during the wrong time-period, you will get
wrong answers. (This important study is available in PDF at
http://www.rachel.org/library/getfile.cfm?ID=182 .)

** In January, research in two New York City neighborhoods
found a correlation between environmental contamination and
babies born with low birth weight and small head circumference.
Dr. Frederica Perera, the lead author of the study, told the
New York Times that the results were particularly troubling
because these birth outcomes are predictors of "poor health and
mental problems later in life."[8]

If prenatal exposures to environmental chemicals really do give
rise to lifelong disease, it means that the present systems for
medical care, public health, and environmental protection can
never achieve their goals. This should be a profound wake-up

If certain chronic diseases (some cancers, some immune
disorders, and some diseases of the nervous system, for
example) -- many of which are increasing today -- are being
caused by run-of-the-mill prenatal exposures, then people must
be protected from exposure to disease-producing chemicals even
before they are born. Present-day public-health systems are not
remotely capable of achieving such a goal. This is a powerful
argument against business as usual, an argument that is
unlikely to fade any time soon.

In recent years, corporations that manufacture or use large
quantities of industrial poisons have devised two responses to
this distinctly-unwelcome new picture of disease.

In the past decade, corporations have spent tens of billions of
dollars to inject doubt and uncertainty into the debate about
low-level environmental exposures causing disease. Under the
present risk-based system, scientific uncertainty creates a
"green light" for chemical contamination. So long as the link
between exposure and disease has not been proven to a
scientific certainty, exposures can continue.

This is why corporate/governmental leaders created our present
regulatory system, based on "risk assessment." The risk-based
system assumes that we can determine "safe" (or "acceptable")
levels of all industrial poisons if we simply study the problem
long enough. And until we have completed such studies,
contamination can continue because that is what "individual
liberty" combined with "free markets" would dictate. (Never
mind that corporations are nothing like individuals and
therefore should never be accorded the liberties that
individuals enjoy -- an argument seldom heard in polite

This risk-based approach has allowed the entire planet to
become contaminated with potent industrial poisons -- with
grievous consequences for wild creatures -- and has allowed
chronic human disease to proliferate.

If you want to be reminded of the terrible consequences of this
risk-based approach, check daily at
http://www.environmentalhealthnews.org .

If you sit in a quiet place to read these daily reports of
contamination and disease, you can hear the hum of the
industrial system grinding up the biosphere, day by day. You
hear the self-assured voices of corporate officials denying
their personal responsibility, claiming there is no
alternative, explaining that jobs will be lost if they behave
any other way (subtly shifting blame to working people for
management's refusal to innovate). In the background, you can
hear the monotone murmur of government officials doing their
jobs, deflecting public concern with the language of risk
assessment: "No immediate threat to health." "Acceptable risk."
"Well within the guidelines." And the grinding continues day
after day after day.

In recent years, it has become indisputably clear that
low-level environmental exposures DO matter, and so a new
rationale for business-as-usual was needed. The newest
corporate/governmental answer to these problems is "genes."
Billions of dollars are now being poured into genetic studies
to show that it is our individual susceptibility to disease
that must be fixed -- not the industrial poisons that attack
our genes to cause disease.

The fundamental idea behind this genetic approach is that we
can continue to flood the environment with exotic
disease-producing chemicals because we will be immunized
against harm by expensive improvements to our genetic heritage.

Or, alternatively, we will be cured of disease after it occurs
-- again, by expensive rearrangement of our genes.

The very latest corporate "solution" is nanotechnology, whose
advocates assure us that environment-related diseases such as
cancer will one day be cured by tiny "nanobots" --infinitessimally
small machines designed to motor through our
arteries and identify (and then zap) diseased cells.[10] So we
should spend billions on nanobot research and forget about the
traditional basis of public health -- primary prevention. There
is simply no money in prevention.

All these new approaches like genes and nanobots share one
common feature: they will all increase our dependence on
corporate "experts" who will hold our lives in their hands, for
which we will, no doubt, be required to pay dearly. (Those who
cannot afford to pay are presumably lazy good-for-nothings whom
we can profitably allow to expire, preferably somewhere out of
public view.)

But sooner or later the ancient wisdom of prevention seems sure
to prevail because the facts are driving us relentlessly toward
that necessity. Prevention is really the only affordable (and
feasible) solution to medical, public health and environmental
problems. Therefore, sooner or later, prevention must prevail.

The European Union is currently trying to institutionalize
prevention of harm in its proposed new policy toward industrial
chemicals.[11] The E.U. has made the audacious proposal that
chemicals should actually be tested to discover their effects
on health and the environment BEFORE they are marketed. This
precautionary approach is captured in the phrase, "No
information, no market."

In response to this common-sense E.U. proposal, chemical
corporations world-wide have joined forces to declare all-out
war on the E.U.'s environmental ministry, and they have the
full force and power of the U.S. government behind them.

The National Journal recently described the U.S. vs. E.U
struggle this way:

"The conflict over the chemicals legislation goes deeper than
the usual arguments over dollars and cents. The root cause is
the E.U.'s use of the so-called precautionary principle. This
is a concept, codified in the European Union charter, that
government can and should make policy based on the significant
possibility of risk, even before all data is compiled. It is on
the opposite end of the spectrum from the way policy is usually
set in Washington, where the government does not usually pass
broad reforms until there is concrete evidence of harm.

"By contrast, the European chemicals policy is pre-emptive,
requiring a massive amount of testing in the hope of reducing
harm before it occurs.

"Although the costs involved with the chemicals legislation
will not be cheap, the European Union argues that the change
will pay off in the long run. According to E.U. estimates, the
indirect costs of higher chemical prices to European
manufacturers and consumers over 15 years would be as high as
$29.3 billion. But on the benefits side, the E.U. estimates
that in 30 years, there will be 2,200 to 4,300 fewer cases of
cancer, and savings of $20.3 billion to $61 billion in
occupational health expenditures."[12]

The chemical industry and the U.S. government are allies in a
titanic struggle for their right to continue poisoning people
and the planet unabated. Nevertheless, sooner or later, I
believe, common sense will prevail and a preventive approach
will be adopted everywhere.

I do not think for a minute that it will be easy. Millions --perhaps
many millions -- more people (not to mention wild
creatures) will have to live and die with birth defects,
cancers, attention deficits, asthma, diabetes, and low IQ
before corporations are brought to heel.

Corporations have captured control of our publicly-owned
airwaves, harnessed our public universities to satisfy a
corporate agenda, seized direction of our federal government's
research budget, defiled scientific advisory committees
worldwide by packing them with corporate shills, dumbed down
our public schools, corrupted our federal courts, and bribed
the executive and legislative branches of our government
through the simple device of funding election campaigns.

About the only feature of our democracy that corporations have
not yet entirely debauched is our right of free speech. And of
course they are working on that one, too. Slapp suits and
veggie libel laws are intended to silence critics of corporate
violence. The best-known veggie libel lawsuit is that of TV
star Oprah Winfrey, who was hauled into court by Texas meat
mavens, charged with defaming red meat, a crime under Texas
law. Winfrey won the lawsuit but it reportedly cost her upwards
of $3 million to do so. No doubt, many a reporter and editor
now thinks twice before publishing new information about the
many dreadful diseases linked to excessive red meat in our
diet. And just last week, Monsanto, the St. Louis chemical
bully, sued dairy farmers in Maine who had the temerity to
advertise to their customers that their milk contains none of
Monsanto's patent-medicine artificial hormones.[13]

No doubt, the assault on our right of free speech is a
purposeful, coordinated, long-term corporate strategy, and
extremely dangerous.

Yet despite this bleak picture of a world corrupted and
intimidated by corporate power, the ancient truth about
environment and disease continues to leak out through the
cracks in the system. Indeed, on the web, the truth fairly
gushes out. This alone is powerful reason for hope. With the
creation of new web sites like those maintained by Pete Myers,
it IS possible to arm ourselves with information, to resist
tyranny. The truth shall set you free.


[1] Marcus Vitruvius Pollio, "de Architectura libri decem."
Much of the Vitruvius text is available at
Texts/Vitruvius/ .

In Book 1, Vitruvius wrote,

"Skill in physic enables him [the architect] to ascertain the
salubrity of different tracts of country, and to determine the
variation of climates, which the Greeks call klivmata: for the
air and water of different situations, being matters of the
highest importance, no building will be healthy without
attention to those points."

And in Book 2:

"7. Natural consistency arises from the choice of such
situations for temples as possess the advantages of salubrious
air and water; more especially in the case of temples erected
to sculapius, to the Goddess of Health, and such other
divinities as possess the power of curing diseases. For thus
the sick, changing the unwholesome air and water to which they
have been accustomed for those that are healthy, sooner
convalesce; and a reliance upon the divinity will be therefore
increased by proper choice of situation."

[2] Peter Montague, "Ralph Nader and Barry Commoner: Strategies
for Public Interest Research, with Three Original Case Studies"
unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of New Mexico,
1971. Available from University Microfilms, Inc. (www.umi.com).
The "Introduction" is available at:
http://www.rachel.org/library/getfile.cfm?ID=184 .

[3] Ted Schettler and others, In Harm's Way; Toxic Threats to
Child Development (Boston: Greater Boston Physicians for Social
Responsibility, May, 2000). Available at:
http://www.rachel.org/library/getfile.cfm?ID=183 .

[4] Theo Colborn, Dianne Dumanoski, and John Peterson Myers,
Our Stolen Future (N.Y.: Dutton, 1996; Plume [paperback], 1997
-- ISBN 0452274141).

[5] F.X. Castellanos and others, "Developmental trajectories of
brain volume abnormalities in children and adolescents with
attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder," Journal of the
American Medical Association Vol. 288 (2002), pgs. 1740-1748.

[6] Lennart Hardell and others, "Increased Concentrations of
Polychlorinated Biphenyls, Hexachlorobenzene, and Chlordanes in
Mothers of Men with Testicular Cancer," Environmental Health
Perspectives Volume 111, Number 7 (June 2003), pgs. 930-934.

[7] Linda S. Birnbaum and Suzanne E. Fenton, "Cancer and
Developmental Exposure to Endocrine Disruptors," Environmental
Health Perspectives Vol. 111, No. 4 (April 2003), pgs. 389-394.

[8] Lydia Polgreen, "Pollution Linked to Low Birth Weights in
African-Americans," New York Times January 17, 2003.

[9] On corporations, see Rachel's #388 and #582 at
http://www.rachel.org , for example.

[10] M.C. Roco, "From Vision to the Implementation of the U.S.
National Nanotechnology Initiative," Journal of Nanoparticle
Research Vol. 3, No. 1 (2001), pgs. 5-11.

[11] Associated Press, "EU chemical-safety plan is called
unworkable," Baltimore Sun July 11, 2003.

[12] Samuel Loewenberg, "The Chemical Industry's European
Reaction," The National Journal Vol. 35, No. 28 (July 12,

[13] David Barboza, "Monsanto Sues Dairy in Maine Over Label's
Remarks on Hormones," New York Times July 12, 2003.