The body burden of chemicals in children has developed into a major battle pitting expert against expert, creating diverse political agendas, and fostering a war-of-words between non-governmental organizations (NGO) and the chemical industry. As this battle escalates, how might it impact you and your employer/client? Keep in mind technology to measure chemicals within a person through biomonitoring has dramatically advanced during the past decade.

Children’s body burden

In July 2005, Environmental Working Group published the research study Body Burden: Pollution in Newborns: http://www.ewg.org/ reports/bodyburden2/execsumm.php. The study detected 287 industrial chemicals in the umbilical cord blood from ten newborn children, randomly selected by the Red Cross from U.S. hospitals. Based upon the results of the study, which was endorsed by ten scientists and medical experts, EWG called for major reforms to U.S. laws that aim to protect “the youngest and most vulnerable members of our society” from chemical exposures.

Rep. Louise Slaughter, the ranking Democrat on the House Rules Committee, and the only microbiologist in Congress, issued a press release on July 14, calling the pollution in newborn study “shocking” and a “wake-up call for our country.” Slaughter announced new legislation she authored called the “Environmental Health Research Act of 2005” that would provide “safeguards against prenatal pollution.”

Over in the Senate, the pollution in newborn study also served as an example for Senators Lautenberg, Waxman, Jeffords, Boxer, Kerry, Corzine, Clinton and Kennedy to introduce the “Child, Worker and Consumer Safe Chemicals Act of 2005” (aka “Kid Safe Chemicals Act”). The Kid Safe Chemicals Act would result in a major overhaul of the Toxic Substances Control Act and help make U.S. laws compatible with legislation being taken on chemicals in the European Union — a direction that the Bush administration opposes.

War-of-words

The pollution in newborn study has led to major saber rattling, much of it being played out in the media. On July 25th The Wall Street Journal ran the first in a series of articles entitled “Toxic Traces” on its front page. The WSJ article suggests that our body burden of chemicals is related to an increase of various diseases.

Weighing in on the side of caution, Elizabeth Whelan, president of the American Council on Science and Health (ACSH), said the study “...will generate unnecessary anxiety and will lend support to those who literally wish to dismantle our technological society” (see http://www.acsh.org/factsfears/newsID.587/news_detail.asp).

Jack Gerard, president and CEO of the American Chemistry Council (and a father of six children) stated that EWG’s announcement of the study “is unbefitting the critical issue of children’s health (and)… may well frighten the parents of newborns.”

Countering these arguments, Senator Lautenberg (in his statement on the Kid Safe Chemicals Act) commented, “I have ten grandchildren ... and I believe we have a sacred duty to protect the health of infants and children. I agree with Daniel Maguire, a professor of religious ethic at Marquette University who stated, ‘As a principle of ethics, whatever is good for kids is good; whatever is bad for kids is ungodly’.”

Larger studies coming

EWG’s pollution in newborn study is but the tip of the iceberg regarding measurements of a child’s body burden of chemicals. The EWG study involved just ten newborns. The National Children’s Study (NCS) (http://nationalchildrensstudy.gov/), authorized by the Children’s Health Act of 2000, will “...examine the effects of environmental influences on the health and development of more than 100,000 children across the United States, following them from before birth...” The first participants should be enrolled in early 2007. NCS plans call for measuring chemicals that may be found in umbilical cord blood and other newborn body tissues.

Kids as pawns?

According to Peter Sandman (http://www.psandman.com/gst2001.htm), a leading risk communication expert, “Children are an especially vulnerable population in two senses: They are often at greater hazard, and their vulnerability virtually always provokes greater outrage. Largely because of the second (factor), ignoring the first is seen as a very serious ethical infraction. Further, “The uniqueness of children’s risk inevitably makes them frequent pawns in risk controversies.” Sandman says the most defensible way to handle such (risk communication) problems “is to tell all: the risk to kids and other vulnerable populations, the risk to those who are not especially vulnerable, and the overall risk when the groups are combined.”

Risk communication

As the issue of children’s body burden of chemicals grows, you must be especially careful of how you communicate this risk. First, welcome rigorous scientific scrutiny on the topic. The American Chemistry Council (ACC), for example, endorses and supports the NCS.

Next, be prepared for the possible question, “Which chemicals used by your company (e.g. employer/client) have been detected in the blood of American babies?” In July 2005, the EWG asked a similar question to the ACC and all the major chemical companies. The likelihood of this question being asked may be high if you help protect employees that may be starting a family or if discharges from your work site into the community are composed of reproductive/developmental toxicants.

To help you answer this question, review the information in the August 2005 document, Biomonitoring: Measuring Levels of Chemicals in People – and What the Results Mean (http://www.acsh.org/docLib/ 20050721_biomonitoring.pdf). The document was written by Dennis Paustenbach, PhD, and David Galbraith, MD. Paustenbach’s credentials include the CIH and CSP. In March 2003, Paustenbach also became the editor of the Journal of Children’s Health (http://www.journalofchildrenshealth.org/).

Also, you might want to review the Centers for Disease Control’s assessment of the exposure of the U.S. population to environmental chemicals, released on July 21st of this year.

Rapidly evolving technologies and concepts are creating significant challenges for regulators, EHS pros and the public in protecting children (including prenatal) from environmental (including workplace) exposures. There will be much uncertainty.

Recognize that emotional levels in risk communication follow the 4C stages: Curiosity, Concern, Controversy, and Conflict. EHS pros have the greatest control at a person’s curiosity stage. If someone is simply curious about a topic and you help to effectively resolve their curiosity, then the problem may go no further. A person’s concern is harder to address and controversy is even more troublesome. EHS pros will not be able to resolve conflict on their own, as outside parties (such as lawyers) usually come into play and time and costs to solve the problem rapidly escalate.

If you find yourself heading to the controversy stage of risk communication, promptly seek upper management and legal guidance.