Environmental Birth Defects: Pollutants Increase Risks

In a joint research project between the University of Texas at Austin and the Peking University in China, researchers have shown that pollution and pesticides are accountable to a 450 percent increased risk of anencephaly and spina bifida, a neural tube defect and one of the major environmental birth defects, in rural China. The study was a collaboration of more than 10 years of data between a professor of nutritional sciences and director of genomic research, Richard Finnell and researchers in a northern province of China. The study was recently published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Pollution Environmental Birth Defects

Environmental Birth Defects: Joint Research Between US and China

Environmental Birth Defects: Researchers in Rural Shanxi

Researchers in rural Shanxi, a Chinese province, collected the placentas from 80 stillborn or newborn fetuses that were born with spina bifida or anencephaly. When a fetus was identified as having either of these conditions it was collected, and a placenta from a healthy baby was used as a control specimen. Finnell and his Chinese colleagues then tested the placentas for persistent organic pollutants (POPs). Burned fossil fuel byproducts, industrial solvents and agricultural pesticides are all common POPs.

Two Pesticides were Tested for Environmental Birth Defects 

During the testing of afflicted newborns and stillborn fetuses, two pesticides, lindane and endosulfan, were present in alarming amounts. Lindane was used in the United States to treat crops such as barley and corn, and endosulfan is only recently being phased out. It has been used to treat potatoes, apples, cotton and tomatoes.

This testing also revealed a connection between high concentrations of a byproduct of burning coal and oil called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), and anencephaly and spina bifida.

Environmental Birth Defects: Spina Bifida

Spina bifida is one of the most serious kinds of environmental birth defects where the tissue around the baby’s spinal cord doesn’t close properly. Anencephaly is the term for an incomplete skull and underdeveloped brain. Babies born with anencephaly are typically either stillborn or they die shortly after birth. About one out of every 3000 babies born in the United States are born with a neural tube defect such as spina bifida.

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