Generations at Risk: Reproductive Health and the Environment

By Ted Schettler | Go to book overview

Introduction

In the early 1950s, when the post— World War II industrial boom was not yet tempered by concerns about environmental or health threats, reports began to emerge from a village in Japan about a strange neurological disease. Particularly affecting infants and children, the condition bore a striking resemblance to cerebral palsy. As the story unfolded, it gradually became clear that fetal development was being poisoned by a chemical toxicant. Investigators discovered that mercury had been released into Minamata Bay for years from a vinyl chloride plant. This toxic metal had been transformed into organic mercury in the sediments of the bay and accumulated to dangerous levels in the fish eaten by the villagers. Organic mercury interferes with the function and development of the brain. This local epidemic was an early signal that human reproduction and infant development may be vulnerable to the effects of chemical toxicants.

Meanwhile lead, another toxic metal, was being added to gasoline in the United States. Emitted from tailpipes throughout the country, lead was polluting the air, accumulating in water and soil, and insidiously making its way into the blood, bones, and brains of every person in this country. The epidemic caused by the subtle effects of this toxicant on the fetal and infant brain was not recognized for another three decades.

The generations since the Minamata Bay tragedy have been affected by numerous other epidemics of reproductive or developmental dysfunction due to chemical exposures. In the 1960s, mercury-contaminated

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