Op-Ed written by by Dr. A. Karim Ahmed for the New Haven Register (Printed 3/24/2014)
Since the publication over 20 years ago of the landmark National Academy of Sciences’ report, “Pesticides in the Diets of Infants and Children,” we have become acutely aware of the highly vulnerable status of children’s health when exposed to harmful chemical compounds. As is well known, children are not young adults — they are uniquely susceptible to the impact of chemical substances.
Yet we have allowed thousands of chemical compounds to enter the marketplace, whose harmful impacts on the growing fetus and the newborn child are basically unknown. And most disturbingly, these chemical compounds are treated as if they were “people” in the eyes of the law — they are presumed innocent until proven guilty beyond all reasonable doubt.
This is indeed a perverse application of the common law tradition of our society. Chemicals are not people — they do not live or breathe, they do not feel pleasure or pain, they do not bear or raise children, and most of all, they are not too concerned about the future of our society. Nevertheless they are given a privileged status among us, equal to any citizen brought to trial before a jury of their peers in a court of law.
In this country, except for certain food and drug-related products, the heavy burden of proof of a product’s harm is placed on the shoulders of regulatory agencies and the public. Meanwhile, manufacturers and businesses are freely allowed to introduce new products without any requirement to undertake pre-market testing for harmful effects.
This regulatory neglect covers many infant and child-related products, such as children’s clothing and bedding, lotions and shampoos, toys and games, drinking bottles and sippy cups and a large variety of fresh, packaged and prepared foods, to name a few. Yet, many parents believe our public agencies would not allow the sale of children’s products unless they were safe.
In view of this vast ignorance on the part of the public, the average parent or teacher today has no knowledge about the harmfulness of products to which their children are exposed. Without much guidance, how is a mother to know that the plastic bottle she feeds her baby may, in fact, contain a toxic mixture of additives and plasticizers that could leach into her infant’s drink?
Moreover, our definition of what is a toxic chemical or an unsafe product has undergone a fundamental change in recent years. The traditional definition of a toxic substance was that the “dose makes the poison,” which meant the higher the dose of a compound, the greater its harmful effect.
Two scientific findings have modified this age-old, yet medieval understanding of a poison. First, we discovered chemical compounds that cause genetic damage and cancer in our population do not possess a safe toxicity “threshold” like those seen with acutely toxic compounds. In other words, there is no “safe level” for exposing ourselves to a mutagens or carcinogens in consumer products.
The second, and probably more far-reaching in its scope, is our recognition of a new class of toxic substances called endocrine disruptors. These compounds mimic the hormonal activity of female estrogens at very low dose levels. Its health impacts are particularly severe on the developing fetus and the growing young child after birth.
With endocrine disruptors the conventional dose-response relationship does not hold. Its toxic effects are observed at high and low doses, while intermediate doses exhibit lower impacts. Here, the dose clearly does not make the poison. This could have profound influence on how we regulate certain classes of harmful substances in the future.
Pending legislation before the Connecticut General Assembly will be a crucial first step in implementing a far-reaching, yet common sense regulation of potentially harmful chemicals by requiring the establishment of a list of priority chemicals of “high concern” to children that is reviewed and revised every two years.
It also requires the commissioner of Public Health to recommend practical means to reduce children’s exposure to priority chemicals. This could include labeling, issuance of public advisories, product bans or phase-outs, and suggestions for replacing priority chemicals with safer alternatives.
As a biomedical scientist who specializes in children’s environmental health, and as a parent and grandparent of many years standing, I can think of few other legislative acts of greater importance to our society’s future or more deserving of bi-partisan support.
The legislation’s backers should be commended for supporting this historic pro-life legislation. It will go a long way in protecting the health and welfare of the unborn fetus, the newly born infant and young children of all ages in the state of Connecticut.
Dr. A. Karim Ahmed, adjunct professor of occupational and environmental medicine at the University of Connecticut Health Center and director of international programs for the National Council for Science and the Environment. He recently submitted testimony to both the General Assembly’s Public Health and Children’s Committees on protective legislation currently being considered by lawmakers (SB 126 and HB 5354).