WASHINGTON (CNS) - America is using "children as our test rodents" for thousands of new chemicals that have never been tested for toxicity to human life in the womb, said Dr. Philip J. Landrigan, director of the Center for Children's Health and the Environment at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York.
At a daylong conference April 30 at the headquarters of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in Washington, Landrigan and other experts highlighted the scientific, ethical and moral links between effective clean environment policies and the life and health of the nation's children.
As an example of the impact of a tested toxin in the environment, Landrigan said an estimated 300,000 to 600,000 children born in the United States each year suffer a loss of 0.2 to 24.4 IQ points because of methylmercury that passed through the placenta when they were in the womb.
That does not include more than 1,500 American children born each year who are clinically classified as mentally retarded because of methylmercury exposure in the womb, he said. Coal-burning electrical plants, waste incinerators and plants producing chlorine gas are responsible for most of the methylmercury found in the food chain worldwide.
The conference, "Protecting Human Life and Caring for Creation," featured scientists specializing in prenatal and pediatric health, ethicists, government officials and leaders of national Catholic organizations engaged in environmental and pro-life work. About 60 people from across the country attended.
The gathering was jointly organized by the USCCB Department of Social Development and World Peace and the USCCB Secretariat for Pro-Life Activities, with support from the Catholic Coalition for Children and a Safe Environment and financial support from the National Religious Partnership for the Environment.
Landrigan told the group that of more than 80,000 new organic synthetic chemicals introduced commercially since the 1960s 2,863 qualify as "high production volume" - more than a million pounds a year of each one are produced in or imported into the United States.
"No basic toxicity information is publicly available for 43 percent" of those high-volume chemicals and "full information on toxicity is publicly available for only 7 percent," he said.
Dr. David O. Carpenter, director of the Institute for Health and the Environment at the University at Albany of the State University of New York, described the toxic effects of polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, when a metabolized form is transmitted from the mother to the child in her womb. Although PCBs have been banned for decades, they remain in the environment in massive quantities and work their way up through the food chain.
Prenatal exposure to PCBs can increase compulsive behavior and alter gender-specific behaviors, he said, but "the most damaging thing is the reduced ability to think."
Frederick S. vom Saal, a professor of reproductive biology at the University of Missouri-Columbia, said that phthalates - chemicals used to make polyvinyl chloride soft and pliable - are widely used in cosmetics in the United States although the European Parliament has banned such use.
Prenatal exposure to phthalates has been linked to premature birth, inhibited genital development, low testosterone, asthma, allergies and obesity, he said.
Although 153 of 167 government-funded studies have found such exposure to phthalates harmful, chemical companies have produced 13 studies that concluded they are not harmful, and the cosmetic industry uses those studies for "the creation of scientific uncertainty" to stave off regulation, he said. He warned the group always to check who funds the research.
Bishop Joseph E. Kurtz of Knoxville, Tenn., who opened and closed the conference, said the church brings the same distinctive perspective to its concern for creation and the environment as it does to its concern for the unborn. That perspective involves respect for the human person, concern for the common good and a special option for the poor, he said.
Richard Doerflinger, deputy director of the USCCB Secretariat for Pro-Life Activities and one of a panel of respondents reviewing the conference at the end of the day, said that once, when he was testifying against destroying human embryos for research before the President's Council on Bioethics, a council member suggested a number of embryos are lost naturally through miscarriages and using some for experiments would not add significantly to that.
He said he responded that if one looked at air and water pollution, smoking, alcohol, low-level radiation and other environmental toxins, "I don't think there is such a thing as a natural loss rate any more."
"His answer to that was, 'Well, if you're so upset about those things, too, why isn't the Catholic Church doing something about it?'" Doerflinger said. "I at least was able to say, 'Look at the environmental justice project page on our Web site. You'll find out we are trying to do something about it."
He said the incident brought home to him both the consistency of the church's stance and the need to educate others about it.
Sister Margaret John Kelly, dean of arts and sciences at St. John's University in New York and a Daughter of Charity, said the day's discussions highlighted the "great urgency" of the issue and the need to move it beyond academic discussion to wider popular education.
She said that if the European Union can require toxicity testing for all new synthetic chemicals, as was noted in an earlier presentation, "we certainly can do it."
"This is an issue of principles, not market," she said.
Copyright (c) 2007 Catholic News Service/U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops