Health news roundup

Mercury pollution lowers children’s IQ, researchers say


Heather Cunningham


Some 10 to 15 percent of all children born in America each year suffer from stunted intelligence, or reduced IQ, caused by mercury pollution, according to a study by scientists at the Mount Sinai Center for Children’s Health and the Environment in New York.

While this costs the United States an estimated $8.7 billion in lost earnings annually, study author and pediatrician Dr. Leonardo Trasande says children pay the greatest price. “If we do not institute smart mercury pollution policy, we will be allowing mercury to poison a generation,” he says.

More ten years ago, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency took successful measures to lower mercury emissions from municipal incinerators and medical waste. “Now we have an opportunity, and responsibility, to protect our children from the most significant source of man-made mercury emissions—power plants,” says Trasande.

The EPA agrees. New Clear Skies legislation supported by President Bush and designed to further reduce mercury emissions nationwide was voted down in early March because some lawmakers feared it was not strong enough. After it failed, the EPA released the Clean Air Mercury Rule on March 15. In an EPA statement, Acting Administrator Steve Johnson says, “We remain committed to working with Congress to help advance the president’s Clear Skies legislation in order to achieve greater certainty and nationwide emissions reductions, but we need regulations in place now.”

Combined with the Clean Air Interstate Rule, also released in early March, these new guidelines will effectively reduce emissions from coal-fired power plants by nearly 70 percent to 15 tons a year.

This is the first time the United States has taken this type of regulatory step, according to Johnson. “In so doing, we become the first nation in the world to address this remaining source of mercury pollution.”

To further reduce mercury exposure at home, pregnant women and children should not eat shark, mackerel, swordfish or tilefish. Check with local advisories about the safety of eating fish caught in local lakes, rivers or coastal areas.

Of visit the EPA’s fish advisory Web site at

Prenatal testing

Women once had only one choice—to wait until their second trimester of pregnancy for prenatal screening for chromosomal abnormalities such as Down syndrome and Trisomy 18. That is no longer the case. Newer tests allows expectant parents to determine a baby’s risk for these conditions in the first trimester of pregnancy—as soon as the 11th week.

Even so, opinions on whether to test earlier—or wait—continue to be mixed. “There are pros and cons to either test,” says Dr. Elias Sherman, chair of obstetrics and gynecology at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine.

Supporters of first-trimester screening say negative results reduce anxiety. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists notes that if early screening is positive, parents can schedule more diagnostic tests, such as chorionic villus sampling, sooner. They say it also gives a woman more privacy if she chooses to terminate the pregnancy.

But in a bulletin to its physicians, the ob/gyns’ organization maintains that precise timing and assessment of gestational age is essential for accurate results in the first-trimester screening. Second-trimester testing is still considered by most doctors to be the care standard.

Experts say expectant parents considering first-trimester screening should be sure that appropriate ultrasound training and quality monitoring are in place at the facility, and that  counseling and appropriate diagnostic testing are available if screening results are positive.

No bird flu—yet

Reports about the Asian avian influenza strain H521, known as the “bird flu,” have some scientists in Asia worried about a pandemic. But that is not the word from the scientists in the United States.

“There is no immediate threat to those of us living in the United States,” says Dr. Robert Baltimore, professor at Yale University School of Medicine and member of the American Academy of Pediatrics’ committee on infectious disease.

Baltimore says parents don’t need to worry about their child contracting the bird flu unless they recently traveled to an Asian country. Even then, to be considered at risk, a child would have to have had direct contact with infected birds or their droppings.

For now, the focus is on Asia. Scientists from the World Health Organization recently met in Vietnam to devise plans to fight the spread of this flu strain. The highly contagious virus, nearly always fatal in birds, has caused 45 human deaths in eight Asian countries. All the victims appear to have caught the flu from infected chickens or other poultry.

Officials say the real concern is that the flu could mutate and spread from person to person. If that happens, experts agree this flu could have worldwide pandemic potential.

Alcohol and pregnancy 

In 1981, the U.S Surgeon General advised pregnant women to limit alcohol.

Two months ago, U.S. Surgeon General Richard H. Carmona strengthened that advisory, warning both pregnant women and those who may become pregnant not to drink alcohol to avoid alcohol-related birth defects.  

Fetuses exposed to alcohol are at risk for serious learning, behavior, growth and other problems. As many as two babies out of 1,000 are affected, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Research also indicates that alcohol can affect a fetus in the early stages of pregnancy—often before a woman knows she is pregnant.

For those reasons, Carmona says, women who are—or may become—pregnant should avoid alcohol completely.  

Heather Cunningham is a mom and contributing writer to Chicago Parent who lives in Batavia. Lorien Menhennett, associate editor of Chicago Parent, also contributed to this story.


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