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.
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.
Many homes in the Shanxi province burn coal in the home for heating and cooking purposes, and pesticides are heavily relied upon to protect crops. While the environmental conditions are much worse in Shanxi compared to the United States, they are similar to conditions in the U.S. about 100 years ago.
Environmental Birth Defects: Pollutants Kill Cells
This study shows that these environmental pollutants kill cells, cells that are crucial to the development of a healthy baby. It has been known for many years that the pollution in China is contributing detrimentally to the health of newborn babies. According to some reports, every 30 seconds, a Chinese baby is born with some form of physical abnormality. Chemical waste has long been thought to be the primary cause, but Finnella’s study delves deeper, showing that there is more than just chemical waste to blame.
Studies like this are integral to environmentalists and the Chinese government. In order for the Chinese to understand the enormity and severity of the solution, hard facts and evidence such as those supplied by this study, are imperative.
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Resources on Environmental Birth Defects and Pollutants:
University of Texas at Austin. (2011, October 21). “Environmental Pollutants Linked To A 450 Percent Increase In Risk Of Birth Defects.” Medical News Today. Retrieved from
Chen Jia. (2009, January 31). â€śBirth Defects Soar Due to Pollution.â€ť China Daily. Retrieved from http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/china/2009-01/31/content_7433211.htm.