Even in tiny doses, many chemicals can derail the delicate systems that control our development, health and reproduction. From conception through puberty, children are especially vulnerable.
Mothers pass a lifetime of chemical accumulation across the placenta during pregnancy, where they become part of a developing infant’s first environment. When the fetus is exposed to certain chemicals during key windows of development — while the nervous system is coalescing, for example, or the reproductive organs taking shape — the normal process of development can be disrupted. Scientists now understand that if the timing is “right,” these exposures during fetal development can result in birth defects, learning disabilities or infertility later in life.
Studies have found 100s of chemicals in the cordblood of newborn infants.
Once a baby is born, some of the chemicals in a mother's body move from fat stores in the body to the breastmilk she produces for her child. Breastmilk is still the best food for babies because its immune system benefits and contributions to an infant’s nutritional and emotional health are unmatched. Yet around the world, this precious resource is compromised.
Pound for pound, the fast-growing bodies of children take in more food, water and air than adults. Because young children often explore the world by putting things in their mouth (including their own hands), they also ingest more chemicals as they handle dust, soil and everyday objects. Scientists now understand that children’s bodies are most vulnerable to chemicals just as these higher levels of exposure are taking place.
The timing, rather than the dose of chemicals is the critical issue. A child’s biological systems are developing rapidly and can be dangerously disrupted by micro-doses of toxins during this period. At the same time, young bodies are not fully able to detoxify. Life-changing harm to the reproductive, neurological or immune systems can result, as can the development of cancer, either in childhood or later in life.
The levels of pesticides and other chemicals in adults reflects each person’s unique accumulation of chemicals: a combination of childhood exposures, workplace contact with chemicals, pesticide residues on the food we eat, products we use in our homes and on our bodies, and the quality of air and water in our communities. An individual’s body burden also reflects the strength of his or her ability to clear the body of toxins, a biological function that can vary widely from person to person. Tragically, one of the most effective ways for a woman of childbearing age to clear her body of persistent chemicals is to breastfeed her child.
Little is known about how multiple chemicals may interact in our bodies to increase the risk of disease. Many diseases that have increased dramatically in recent decades are linked to chemical exposure, including diabetes. Because we carry so many chemicals in our bodies, studies tying individual toxins with specific diseases are difficult to conduct - and little is known about how multiple chemicals may interact in our bodies to increase the risk of disease. Even so, evidence is mounting that elevated levels of chemicals in our bodies are linked to higher risk of adult diseases such as reduced fertility (particularly in men), immune suppression, and bladder, breast and other cancers.
Just as children are particularly susceptible to chemical harm in the first years of life, our final decades also represent a window of increased vulnerability. The history of exposure that comes with age means our chemical body burden may be at its peak just as our biological systems gradually begin to weaken and slow. In addition, the health effects of low-level exposure often take decades to appear, and odds increase that these diseases will begin to emerge as the years pass. Many diseases and syndromes associated with aging have been linked in scientific studies to pesticides and other chemicals, including prostate, kidney and other cancers, thyroid disorders, hearing loss and Parkinson’s disease.