Junkfood Science: Media Seasonal Affective Disorder? More doomsday reporting about birth defects

February 20, 2008

Media Seasonal Affective Disorder? More doomsday reporting about birth defects

This must be the season to scare parents-to-be about birth defects. Two major reports offering reassuring news about birth defects in newborns and cancer mortalities in children have been issued by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The public would never know it, though, as the media has been busily reporting the opposite of the actual data.

Many of these scares have also been addressed at JFS before, so we’ll make quick references for new readers.

Scare #1

According to Red Orbit News and the UK Telegraph, men who smoke or drink, or are exposed to toxins or pesticides, could endanger their unborn babies and their future children for generations, putting them at risk for birth defects. Apparently, some rats had been injected with toxic amounts of a chemical that far exceeded any human exposure and the researchers claimed at an annual science conference that it caused “subtle changes in how the genes work.” The article quoted “Dr. Cynthia Daniels of Rutgers University” who said: “Studies have shown significant associations between male toxic exposures and increased rates of infertility, miscarriage, stillbirth and childhood health problems.” She claimed smoking and drinking alcohol caused “chemical changes in the sperm.” The article concluded by advising “young men hoping to start a family to think twice before drinking and smoking.”

The Telegraph science correspondent didn’t bother to mention that Dr. Daniels is not a medical doctor, but an associate professor of political science and women’s and gender studies. According to Rutger’s University, she is currently writing a book Exposing Men: The Science and Politics of Male Reproduction.

Before anyone buys into fears blaming men’s bad behaviors for birth defects, recall the information reviewed here from one of the world’s top teratologists, Dr. Jon Aase, M.D., of the Division of Clinical Genetics/Dysmorphology and Metabolism at the University of New Mexico Children’s Hospital.

It’s a myth that a father’s exposures can cause anomalies in his offspring, said Dr. Aase. Fathers have no role in birth defects, he said. And it’s not been for a lack of trying by researchers to find some link. Paternal exposure to Agent Orange, for instance, was studied extensively and “there is not a single suggestion of a cause, relationship or risk,” he said. And, in actuality, the only role for fathers when it comes to drinking during a woman’s pregnancy, he said, would be to abstain from drinking simply to help support the mother not indulge.

It is also a myth that something that causes birth defects in animals causes birth defects in people, according to Dr. Aase. As he’s reported, no human birth defect — either risk or type — has ever been predicted by animal studies. People are not rats or animals. In-vitro studies have also failed to predict birth defects.

Nor can miscarriages be blamed on parents. Sadly, myths and fears about miscarriage persist, despite the predominance of medical information to the contrary. As Dr. Jonathan Schaffir, M.D., a clinical assistant professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Ohio State University said, most miscarriages are beyond anyone’s control.

Scare #2

In today’s Natural News, Gail L. Ross, MS, RD (a registered dietician with a master’s degree in nutrition), wrote an article entitled “Death From Birth Defects: Fetal Exposure to Toxins Out of Control,” with especially dire scares. The author claimed that the numbers of unborn babies exposed to toxins is “out of control” and that birth defects have become an increasingly prominent cause of infant death, with 22.1% of infant deaths now due to birth defects. “Another way of looking at it is one in every thirty three babies has a birth defect,” she wrote. Nutritional and toxin origins are the leading cause for birth defects, she added. Citing that hundreds of chemicals are now able to be detected in cord blood [in parts per trillion] and babies’ increased vulnerability to the insult of toxic exposures, she claimed that “for the first time a new crop of chronic conditions have erupted, including childhood brain cancers, lymphocytic leukemia...” This scary article concluded by telling women that it was essential as part of prenatal nutrition for them to reduce their body burden of chemicals and eat “organic” food.

It’s a myth that most birth defects are caused by environmental exposures, such as toxic chemicals, pollutants, radiation or other bad things, said Dr. Aase. Environmental factors are behind only 10% of the 1 in 500 births that are actual birth defects. About 3% of babies are born with some type of congenital abnormality, he explained, but most of those are single body system defects (club feet, heart defect) that are not true “dysmorph” syndromes, or birth defects. And the leading environmental factor and known cause for birth defects isn’t one most people even consider an “environmental exposure.” It is a mother’s drinking alcohol during pregnancy.

Another myth is that any exposure to a known teratogen will cause a birth defect. “The only known thing to cause birth defects with any level of exposure — even a single dose — is thalidomide, which results in birth defects in 41% of cases,” said Dr. Aase. Certain medications are capable of acting as teratogens in certain situations, though, and those class X prescription drugs were discussed here. The importance of a women talking with her doctor when planning to become pregnant or as soon as she knows she is pregnant can help ensure her the safety and the health of her baby. Nonessential medications can be avoided; necessary medications can be adjusted to minimize exposure to the fetus; and the dose, route of administration and timing can be adjusted at each stage of pregnancy to minimize the risk for both mother and baby.

Concerning fears of rising cancers in children, the CDC MMWR has published the latest “Trends in Childhood Cancer Mortality from 1990-2004.” Using the most recently available data from the National Vital Statistics System, the CDC found “age-adjusted childhood cancer deaths decreased significantly during 1990-2004” among both sexes, all ages and in all regions of the country. While all ethnicities saw declines, there were survival disparities among various ethnicities. Examining the specific cancers mentioned by Natural News as “erupting,” according to the CDC, childhood [lymphocytic] leukemia declined 3% a year between 1990-2004 and brain and other nervous system cancers declined by 1% a year.

The CDC data on birth defects also dispels the frightening claims. Today’s issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association published the latest update on the prevalence of birth defects from the Metropolitan Atlanta Congenital Defects Program (MACDP), the oldest population-based birth defects surveillance system in the United States, with active case ascertainment. From 1978 to 2005, the CDC found the prevalence of all types of structural and genetic birth defects (among life births, stillbirths and terminated pregnancies) has remained stable, at around 3%. For instance, while there has been a reduction in anencephaly and spina bifida reflective of folic acid fortification of flours, there’s been a slight increase in down syndrome and other autosomal trisomies reflective of more older mothers 35 years and older.

There’s been no “out of control” increase in birth defects and, according to the CDC, there’s also been no changes in major risk factors that affect birth defects overall. Remember, a mother’s fatness does not cause birth defects, either. The most recent CDC data on infant mortality attributable to birth defects also showed a decline of 34.2% from 1980 to 1995, and overall infant mortality declined 39.8%. There is no evidence to support any need for prospective parents to fear that things in our world are hurting their unborn babies.

This illustration reminds us, once again, that anytime we hear something that makes us feel afraid and anxious, regardless of the source, that is our baloney alert that our emotions are being played. Fear is not the impartial presentation of science and facts, it’s a marketing technique... trying to sell us on something. They are taking advantage of us and counting on us to not verify the facts or understand the science to realize the biological implausibility of their scares.

As you’ve just seen, none of the scary claims in this story were based on factual information and, not surprisingly, neither was the solution being advanced: organic foods. They are counting on us to not verify the facts or know that all plants and foods have their own natural pesticides and chemicals that are no less carcinogenic or safe than the man-made ones. In fact, many man-made chemicals have been developed to be less toxic. We’re also exposed to 10,000 times more natural pesticides, according to research by Dr. Bruce Ames, renowned researcher on mutagenic and carcinogenic risks and professor in Biochemistry & Molecular Biology at the University of California, Berkeley. Our bodies have evolved with our own natural defenses against normal exposures to toxins, so we can eat a tremendous variety of “carcinogens” in our food with no ill effects, said Dr. Ames.

Expectant parents naturally worry for their unborn babies and fear so many things could go wrong. Helping them to have the facts, rather than unnecessarily adding to their worries, is one of the greatest gifts we can give parents-to-be. Sound information can help them keep their babies safe, and lessen their stress when there is nothing plausible to worry about. Good science can help to ensure that pregnancy and new parenthood is a time of joy, something all parents deserve.

© 2008 Sandy Szwarc

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