Thousands of industrial chemicals enter our home, work, and neighborhood environments each year. Pregnant women, children, workers and hot-spot communities can be particularly susceptible to the harmful effects of exposure to toxic chemicals.
Pregnant Women and Developing Fetuses
Despite the U.S. having one of the most technologically advanced maternity and prenatal health care systems on the planet, adverse birth outcomes are on the rise. Premature delivery, fetal growth retardation, low birth weight, and a variety of congenital abnormalities have increased in the last forty years. It is becoming clearer each day that the environment plays a role in in the health and well-being of pregnant women and their unborn fetuses.
Scientists originally thought the placenta shielded cord blood and the developing fetus from most chemicals and pollutants in the environment. This is not the case, even before birth a child is exposed to hundreds of chemicals. Many are mobilized during pregnancy when the fat reserves of the mother are used, and they subsequently find their way across the placenta to the newly developing fetus. There may be special windows of vulnerability in the development of fetuses when these chemicals can have long-term, irreversible effects on reproductive and neurological systems.
Read the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists and American Society for Reproductive Medicine’s Committee opinion on environmental agents and reproductive and developmental health here.
Infants and children are particularly vulnerable to the adverse health effects of chemicals. They are vulnerable to chemicals that adults can tolerate because their bodies may be unable to process and remove certain toxins. Children also receive proportionately larger doses of environmental toxins than adults because, pound for pound, children eat more food, drink more water, and breathe more air than adults.
From the time of conception to puberty and beyond, children are exposed to thousands of chemicals through household cleaning products, pesticides, plastics, personal care products, and industrial products. Very little is known about the effect of these chemicals on a child's development, but emerging science indicates that some chemicals cause damage to a child's developing brain, while others may cause cancer or mimic or block hormones. Additionally, many chronic diseases are on the rise in children, including asthma, developmental disorders, primary brain cancer, and obesity. Evidence is strong and growing that environmental factors contribute to these diseases.
Environmental justice/hot-spot communities
Toxic chemical exposures create specific burdens borne by communities-of-color, Indigenous peoples, and low income communities. These communities across the United States bear a disproportionate impact of a wide array of chemical exposures. They are exposed not only to current chemicals through consumer products, industrial polluters, and chemical plants in their neighborhoods, but they also are frequently afflicted by legacy chemicals from prior industrial land uses. From Alaska to the Gulf Coast, in urban centers like Chicago, New York, Hartford, San Diego and Austin, or to the rural farm country of North Carolina; from the Anishinabe tribe in the Great Lakes to the Penobscot nation in Maine and for countless other communities-of-color, Indigenous peoples across this nation – chemical contamination is real and far too common.
Workers in certain jobs and industries can be exposed to high levels of toxic chemicals as well as mixtures of different type of harmful substances. For example, the men and women who manufacture chemicals and the workers who use those chemicals to process food; make paper; clean office buildings, schools and hospitals; and produce cars and trucks can receive higher aggregate doses as well as higher cumulative exposures resulting in adverse impacts on their health.
Read PSR’s handout on The Chemical Safety Improvement Act.