04/03/2009 05:12 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Birth Defects Surge in a Toxic World

This post was first published on Healthy Child Healthy World.

Recent headlines from China are revealing a growing public health crisis: birth defects are up 40% since 2001, to 145 per 10,000. A child is born every 30 seconds with a birth defect.

It sounds like a horrendous public health crisis, but it made me wonder what the numbers are here in the US. It couldn't be that bad, right? We have less poverty and better prenatal care, so we must have far fewer children being born with birth defects. Wrong. The Chinese estimate about one in every 69 children are born with a birth defect. According to the March of Dimes, one in 33 babies born in the US have a birth defect -- about twice as many as China.

How could this be? Maybe US physicians simply recognize more subtle defects than Chinese. Maybe. But, twice as many? A more interesting story emerges when you compare what each country is saying about causation. In the US, about 30% of birth defects are attributed to genetics, environment, or some combination of the two. A startling 70% of birth defects come from "unknown origins."

On the other side of the ocean, Chinese officials are saying loud and clear that the rise in birth defects are due to pollution from the coal and chemical industries. They aren't claiming ignorance and waiting decades until the full toxicological and epidemiological picture is drawn. Granted, it may be easier for them to make an assumptive analysis. They have industrialized at break-neck speed, so corresponding health effects may be easier to identify. In the US, our industrialization process has been a bit slower, so impacts from various branches of it may be harder to delineate.

Still, our government tends to drag its feet before laying blame, waiting decades or more before pointing a fickle finger. Consider lead, which has been studied for well over a century now and is known to be a potent neurotoxin, but is still allowed in everyday products. It was only last year that Congress finally banned it from products intended for children.

We use thousands of chemicals in everyday products and most have not been adequately tested for health impacts. Chronic disease and illness in the US is on the rise and you don't need statistics to tell you. When you were a child, how many people did you know with cancer, asthma, allergies, autism, obesity, or diabetes? These diseases are so prevalent today that our children are the first generation in recorded history to have a shorter lifespan than their parent's generation.

And, still, it's business as usual here in the US. We pat ourselves on the back for new fuel-efficiency standards of 35mpg by 2020 -- a standard that was in effect in China and Japan six years ago. We all applaud a maximum salary for CEOs of companies receiving government bailouts, when China"s bailout plan includes regulations that prohibit banks from lending to companies that are not in compliance with environmental laws.

We keep using chemicals in cosmetics that have been banned in the EU for years. We keep eating dairy products from cows injected with rBGH even though that's been banned in Canada, the EU, Australia, and Japan for years. Our supermarkets and grocery stores are filled with products that contain questionable chemicals and all we hear is "a little bit won't hurt anyone." But, all these "tiny" exposures are adding up. Babies are being born with over 200 industrial chemicals in their bloodstreams. When will we admit it's gone too far? When will we seriously start pointing fingers?

Not only have Chinese officials already laid blame, they are already kicking off a prevention plan. And, when they decide to change, it's relatively comprehensive and quick. As Arrol Gellner of the San Francisco Gate put it:

In the United States, gross industrial pollution continued utterly unhampered for a century. At China's current rate of progress, and despite its posturing to the contrary, industrial polluters may well be brought up to Western standards within the next decade.

What's more, when China decides that it's ready to tackle its environmental problems full force, it'll move quickly. Unlike us fiercely independent-minded Americans, the Chinese people, for the most part, are far more amenable to sweeping change being imposed from the top down - a deep-seated cultural trait that stems, not from China's trifling time under communism, but rather from its nearly 3,500 years under dynastic rule.

The result is that official pronouncements -- whether they concern spitting on the sidewalk, smoking in restaurants or wasting electricity -- are acted upon with a sense of earnestness and devotion that's quite impossible to imagine here in the United States. So, when an exemplary environmental policy finally reaches the top of the agenda, China may yet become Mother Earth's best friend.

What are we waiting for?