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October 2011

Study Shows Danger of Chemicals to Children's Development

Mothers-to-be know they should avoid alcohol, cigarettes, and certain medications and food, but City moms have to look out for a whole lot more. A groundbreaking study following kids from womb through grade school has shown that exposure to toxins in utero and during childhood can result in lower IQs, and put them at higher risk for cancer, attention deficit disorder, allergies, obesity, and asthma.

While no one thought pesticides, exhaust or second-hand smoke were good for kids, this was the first study to show the direct link to health problems; the critical first step to getting stronger laws limiting children and pregnant women’s exposure to toxic chemicals. The research findings also fueled successful grassroots advocacy on the placement and operations of bus depots and other dirty and dangerous businesses that proliferate north of 96th Street in Manhattan.

The Trust prides itself on taking on complex challenges that take time to solve. With ten years of grants totaling $1.1 million, The Trust has supported the Columbia Center for Children’s Environmental Health to conduct the Mothers and Newborns Study and additional research that has produced 175 academic papers since the study began in 1998. “This study has proven what public health advocates had long suspected,” says Len McNally, program director for health and people with special needs at The Trust. “The sample of findings below are the powerful proof that health advocates and policymakers are using to improve laws that protect public health.”

Children in this study are monitored from before birth through childhood. Among other tests, mothers-to-be were given air monitoring devices that measured their exposure to air pollutants. The following chemicals were found in samples taken from placental blood.


  • Second-Hand Smoke: While all mothers in the study were non-smokers, tests of placental blood detected chemicals from cigarettes.
  • Air Pollution from Burning Fuels: All pregnant women and unborn children were exposed to polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), particulate byproducts of diesel exhaust and burning heating oil and coal.
  • Pesticides: Women who used store-bought or exterminator sprays at home were exposed to dangerous levels of pesticides.
  • Plastics and Fire Retardants: Harmful endocrine disruptors Polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDE), Bisphenol A (BPA), and phthalates were found in most blood samples, most likely from exposure to common plastics, toys, textiles, and kitchenware.

Unhealthy Kids

Infant/Toddler (ages 0-2)

  • Prenatal exposure to air pollutants and pesticides led to lower birth weight, and 40% of babies in the study were born with DNA damage associated with an increased risk for cancer.

Children (ages 2-7)

  • Prenatal exposure to cigarette chemicals led to significantly reduced scores on tests for cognitive development of 2-year-olds.
  • Prenatal and postnatal exposure to air pollutants and cigarette smoke resulted in the increased likelihood of respiratory and asthma-like symptoms at five to six years of age.
  • Exposure to air pollutants from burning fuels also lead to Lower IQ scores at ages 5 and 7—reductions similar to scores seen with some exposure to lead.
  • Children with high exposure to pyrene (a PAH) both prenatally and at 5 to 6 years of age had more wheezing, trips to the emergency room, and asthma symptoms.
  • Prenatal exposure to pesticides and air pollutants linked to significantly reduced scores on tests for cognitive development of 3-year-olds.
  • Some plastics and most fire retardants contain endocrine disruptors. Children with higher concentrations of these endocrine disruptors in their umbilical cord blood at birth scored lower on tests of mental and psychomotor development at ages 1-4 and at age 6.

Findings Used to Back Powerful Legislation

These findings are immensely disturbing and impossible to ignore. They have been used to support, pass, and enforce laws that protect environmental and public health, some of which are detailed below:

  • Cleaner Air: The study influenced federal, state, and local clean air laws. The findings on the harmful impact of diesel soot helped pass the City’s Local Law 77, which mandates that all large vehicles, including the MTA bus fleet, convert from dirty to ultra-low sulfur diesel. Those vehicles now emit 95% less tail-pipe pollution.
  • Reducing Asthma Triggers: In 2007, the City Council passed the NYC Safe Housing Act, which makes remediation requirements more stringent for asthma triggers, including mold conditions and vermin infestation. This law has helped tenants and advocates improve conditions in rental housing.
  • Fewer Pesticides in Public Housing: In 2009, the City Council passed Local Law 37, which mandates integrated pest control in all New York City Housing Authority buildings. Instead of just spraying chemicals, a much bigger emphasis is placed on pest prevention through cleaning and repairs of leaks and holes. When pests need to be killed, sticky traps, bait stations, and gels are used first, before harmful sprays. According to Mayor Bloomberg, “The Center’s research about the exposure of pregnant women and newborns to pesticides motivated Local Law 37 and put New York at the forefront of safer pest control methods in the United States.”
  • No Smoking: In 2003, the City extended its indoor anti-smoking ban to include bars and restaurants, making it one of the strongest anti-smoking laws in the nation at the time. In 2011, it passed a ban in parks, on beaches, and other outdoor areas.
  • Strengthening the Nation’s Chemical Laws: While not law yet, the Safe Chemical Act would go farther than any other bill to protect Americans from toxic chemicals. Championed by Senators Lautenberg, Gillibrand, and Schumer, the Act would require companies to prove the safety of many types of chemicals before putting them in consumer products. Dr. Frederica Perera, director of the Columbia Center for Children’s Environmental Health, has testified in Congress and to other policymakers, and worked with dozens of news outlets around the world to build public awareness of the Center’s groundbreaking work, helping make chemical reform a national priority.

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