Toxic Landfills May Boost Birth Defects

From the WebMD Archives

Jan. 24, 2002 -- Children born to mothers living near hazardous-waste landfills may face higher risk of many types of birth defects, including those involving DNA abnormalities.

Researchers from the U.K. previously reported a 33% increase in the risk of non-genetic birth defects among people living within a two-mile radius of one of 21 European hazardous-waste sites. Newly released findings suggest a similar increase in risk for defects that have DNA links, such as Down syndrome.

"This is only an initial study, and it doesn't tell us anything about what kind of chemicals were in these sites or whether people were directly exposed to them," lead author Martine Vrijheid, PhD, of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, tells WebMD. "It is very hard to conclude anything definite from these studies. But they do suggest that there may be a very real public health concern."

The European study, which appears in the Jan. 26 issue of The Lancet, compared babies born to mothers living within about two miles of selected hazardous waste sites to the children of mothers living from about two to four miles from the sites. This type of comparison is just one step in figuring risk, says Kathy Skipper of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR).

"Generalized studies of hazardous-waste sites are probably of marginal utility, because each site has its own unique characteristics," says Skipper, who serves as chief of public affairs for ATSDR. "Those characteristics include things like the type of materials located in the sites and whether the landfill is built on bedrock or sand."

When evaluating the safety of a particular site, ATSDR's detectives first conduct a pathway analysis in an effort to determine how environmental contaminants might be endangering the health of a community, Skipper says. They measure the air, soil, and ground water and then try to establish links between contaminants and sickness.

Only two such contamination cases have been recognized by the agency over the last two decades. Both cases involved an excess of childhood cancers linked to toxic chemical contamination in ground water, and both made headlines.


The first, occurring in Woburn, Mass., was chronicled in the book, A Civil Action, and was later made into a movie starring John Travolta. An excessive number of childhood leukemias and other cancers in Woburn led eight families to sue the town's major industries for contaminating municipal wells with toxic wastes.

Just last month in Toms River, N.J., two chemical companies agreed to pay millions of dollars to 69 families whose children developed cancers that were believed linked to contaminated drinking water. The companies settled with the families after a five-year health study concluded that pollution from the chemical plant appeared to be responsible for at least some of the cancers.

It is no accident that both cases involved illnesses in children, Skipper says. Children and unborn babies have been shown to be far more vulnerable to most environmental pollutants than adults.

"The genesis of the illnesses in Woburn and Toms River appeared to be with the mothers who drank the water while they were pregnant," Skipper says. "We know that something that might not affect a mother's health could be very damaging to her unborn child. So our standards have to take this into account to ensure that the most vulnerable are protected."

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