Theo Colborn
Thursday, November 6, 1997

Before modern technology broke the sound barrier it had already, unknowingly, broken the placental barrier. Unlike breaking the sound barrier that came with a distinct and resounding boom, breaking the placental barrier came with a more stealth-like approach. It came as a spin-off of the gigantic chemical industry that grew out of the second world war. Unfortunately, it has taken a half a century to begin to understand this side effect of modern technology, and society is just beginning to grope with the enormity of the problem.

Let me set the scene for you:

Count back 266 days. From the day of birth to conception -- or birth minus 9 months -- the most sensitive and critical period of one's life -- the period that has more to do with your child's future than any period after birth. It is in this window of time when infinitesimally small concentrations of naturally produced chemicals control which cells develop and how cells develop in the reproductive, endocrine, and immune systems -- and they also direct the wiring of the brain. Many of the bounds of a child's potential are determined during this precious time.

We are gathered here for this plenary on The Chemical-Free Baby because of the overwhelming evidence that every child, no matter where in the world he or she is born, will be exposed, not only from birth, but from conception, to man-made chemicals that can undermine the child's ability to reach its fullest potential -- chemicals that interfere with the natural chemicals that tell tissues how to develop and construct healthy, whole individuals according to the genes they inherited from their mothers and fathers.

My heart aches for parents and those who have chosen careers to work with children, especially school teachers and social workers who are being blamed for all the Marys and Johns who can't read and who create a disturbance in school and on the streets. Unfortunately, the most well intentioned individuals working diligently to improve a child's social and physical environment cannot undo what may have been determined during those 266 prenatal days when the construction of a child's brain can be undermined.

Humankind was first alerted to this problem in the 1960s as wildlife populations around the Great Lakes began to disappear or became so obviously destabilized that biologists could not miss the damage. On closer observation, the biologists discovered that many animals in the troubled populations were dying before birth or hatching, and if they survived to birth, in many instances, the newborn or young animals did not thrive to adulthood. Others never reached sexual maturity and were not capable of reproducing. In every case, the animals carrying the heaviest body burden of a suite of man-made chemicals were the most affected. The biologists moved into the laboratory and using the same suite of man-made chemicals found in the wildlife were able to replay much of the damage they discovered in the field. A full evaluation of the evidence from the field and the laboratory revealed that the mothers were serving as a pathway for man-made chemicals to their offspring in the womb, or the egg in birds, fish, and reptiles. Understandably, the biologists wondered what the same chemicals could be doing to human babies who are born with the same suite of chemicals in their bodies. They could not help but wonder what invisible and, perhaps, delayed impairment might be expressed in children exposed before birth.

Worrisome reports from a team of psychologists about the impaired neurological development of children whose mothers had consumed Great Lakes fish added to the these concerns. In 1993, the US Congress funded the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, a Division of the US Public Health Service, to investigate the human health situation around the Great Lakes. The results of that effort were released last week.

Let me read for you:

"The findings of elevated polychlorinated biphenyl (PCB) levels in human populations, together with the findings of developmental deficits and neurologic problems in children whose mothers ate PCB-contaminated fish, have significant health implications. The weight of evidence based on the findings of wildlife biologists, toxicologists, and epidemiologists clearly indicates that populations continue to be exposed to PCBs and other chemical contaminants and that significant health consequences are associated with these exposures."

Health Canada released a report last week that reached the same conclusions.

Although the production of PCBs ceased in 1979 in the US, they are still in use today. Some of the PCBs are particularly difficult to destroy and because of their persistence they are now widely dispersed in the environment. They accumulate in fatty tissue. In freshwater and marine systems they biomagnify to high concentrations in the tissues of animals at the top of the food web, including humans. There is no doubt anymore that man-made chemicals of this nature are reshaping the destiny of our children.

In light of evidence such as this, a group of international scientists met in Erice, Sicily to discuss their findings concerning the effects of man-made chemicals on the developing brain. They agreed that effects of this nature can change the character of human societies.

There is no excuse for denial anymore. At yesterday's science Roundtable we heard new evidence confirming that sperm count reduction is real in several regions around the world, including the US. A growing number of man-made chemicals to which humans are regularly exposed affect the development of the reproductive organs of both female and male offspring of mother mice and rats exposed during gestation. For example, a chemical used to make plastics causes permanently enlarged prostates, reduced sperm production, and increased aggressive behavior in male mice whose mothers were exposed only during the last 7 days of gestation -- at a dose 25,000 times lower than the US Food and Drug Administration deems safe for human consumption.

And as the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry report stated, PCBs and their co-contaminants are derailing children's ability to think, to remember, to use their brains. We heard yesterday that something in the fish the mothers are eating is also affecting the infants' temperaments so that they don't smile or laugh as much. They express more fear, and they are difficult to soothe or calm down under unpleasant situations, suggesting that man-made chemicals can control how our children develop in unexpected ways. These chemicals can interfere with the normal development of traits that the children would have inherited from their parents.

We also heard yesterday, that a component in DDT, whose breakdown product is found in practically every living organism around the world, can shorten a mother's lactation period. In light of the continued heavy use of DDT in developing countries, this could put millions of babies at greater risk for dehydration, malnutrition, and early mortality where these conditions are already a serious health concern.

It is time for action. We now know enough about a number of manmade chemicals to be confident that it is time to phase them out -- quickly and completely on a global scale -- pesticides like DDT -- and industrial products like PCBs, dioxins, and furans. With what we know today, no one with any conscience would produce these chemicals. More importantly, you do not want them contaminating the products you purchase or the food you consume. From fast foods to deep ocean fish to the most rigid vegetarian diet, these chemicals are found in food. You do not have to eat the more highly contaminated Great Lakes fish to accumulate PCBs, DDT, and dioxins at worrisome levels in your body.

Many questions have already been answered about these stealth chemicals. The answers provide a roadmap for future research. The path is clear. We need an international, independent research and policy entity that moves ahead with the pace of the Manhattan Project. I use this term because many of us in this room can remember the urgency that drove the World War II, Manhattan Project and the concerted effort on the part of government, industry, and academia to build the most dangerous product mankind has ever created. Right now, we need another Manhattan-like Project, not to develop another weapon, but in this case to undo what has evolved as the result of the chemical technology that grew out of World War II.

Unfortunately, there are currently no institutions capable of dealing with the problem at the national, regional, or global level. Governments do not have the will, the courage, or the resources to move forward fast enough. Consequently, industry is going to have to take the lead and come forth with the money to address the problem. Nations will follow.

The effort will require a long-term commitment. Funding cannot be discontinued if the results are counter to a particular interest group or nation.

The process from the beginning must be above reproach. This includes the process of framing the research, evaluating the results, and sharing the information. The credibility of the effort will hinge on keeping industry and government funders from influencing how the research is designed and the results reported.

This is important because unfortunately, the public has lost faith in industry's research when it comes to health issues. Many business people agree that even if industry were to do good science, the public would not believe it. It is to industry's advantage to have the research done independently. In no way should the shame of "cigarette science" taint this effort.

Most important, so that you can be assured that the products you use are safe for your children and grandchildren, there must be a crash program to develop a battery of screens and assays, both short- and long-term tests, to determine the biological activity of current-use and new or alternative chemicals, including everyday products and mixtures of chemicals.

Manufacturers need these testing protocols -- they want these protocols to be sure that their products are safe. And you have the right to know if the products you purchase contain chemicals that can harm your children. This information does not exist for any of the 70,000 chemicals in use today.

In order to addresss this problem from a global perspective, the research agenda must consider those tropical nations that are still dependent upon persistent organochlorine pesticides to produce food and control insects. This can be done by encouraging governments to support the international convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs), which will phase out their production and use. Currently, the initial 12 chemicals listed for phase out in the POPs convention all interfere with development and the reproductive system. 104 nations have already indicated their willingness to move ahead with this. But to do so, alternative strategies to control malaria, dengue fever, and other insect borne diseases must be developed to enable the global banning of DDT and similar products.

This research agenda must also support international studies to address questions about the effects of prenatal exposure on the increases in hormonally driven cancers of the reproductive organs such as the breast, prostate, and testis. It must support a multinational study to investigate the causes of reduced sperm count and semen quality in certain populations. Certainly, the effort should support extending, replicating, and harmonizing the research on reduced intelligence and behavioral and immune changes in children. And of course there must be more research about the role of transgenerational exposure in the viability and stability of wildlife populations that include the declining global ocean fisheries stocks and disappearing frogs -- that equate to a threat to the survival of all species.

We threw caution to the wind in the 1940s with the introduction of new and exciting chemicals that improved our life style. We were entranced with the idea that technology would always be there to bail us out. For some situations this may be true -- but not so for those whose development has been impaired in the womb. Unlike computers that can be reprogrammed. Our children are not little computers. Their endocrine, immune, and reproductive systems can not be reprogrammed nor their brains rewired. No technology or treatment can restore their stolen potential. The only way to confront this problem of misdirected development is to prevent it from happening in the future. Precaution must prevail. Man-made chemicals must be more diligently tested before they reach the marketplace.

Fortunately, there is growing enlightenment and enthusiasm about tackling this challenge on the part of the scientific community. The number of knowledgeable scientists is growing. The number of skeptics is declining. There is no turning back from the new course that has been set by what we have already learned. The road map for future research has been laid down. The goal now for the for 21st century is to move forward to address the problem using the precautionary principle. Let us resolve today that we will no longer allow our children's futures to be stolen during those 266 days in the womb.

Thank you