Green Buckeye RN

EHP: Environmental Factors in Birth Defects: What We Need To Know
October 1, 2009, 10:22 am
Filed under: News

Given the myriad steps involved in fetal growth, each presenting the opportunity for developmental mischief, it is not surprising that more than 7,000 kinds of birth defects are known to occur. The causes of birth defects remain largely a mystery, however, although a few culprits have been identified as important contributors, including some environmental agents.

In the developing world, where malnutrition, poverty, disease, and lack of access to health care elevate prenatal risk, birth defects impose “enormous personal and societal consequences,” according to the 2003 Institute of Medicine report Reducing Birth Defects: Meeting the Challenge in the Developing World. Experts in the developed world often have similar concerns, because in many regions birth defects are the largest single cause of infant deaths.

But reliable numbers for both defects and cases remain unclear, due in large part to a lack of funding, coordinated monitoring efforts, and adequate data. The causes of only about 30% of birth defects are somewhat well understood, and knowledge even of those is sometimes spotty. The 70% still unknown leaves open the possibility that environmental factors could play a significant role. “There are all kinds of classification and data challenges that are tough to overcome,” says Ted Schettler, science director of the nonprofit Science and Environmental Health Network. “It almost makes cancer tracking look easy—[those researchers are] getting pretty standardized data that’s completely not available in the world of birth defects.”

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