The Battle Creek (Michigan) Enquirer  [Printer-friendly version]
June 9, 2003


By John J. Vander Meer

KALAMAZOO -- Area scientists have found a way to use more than
800 sets of dirty diapers.

The unique study, conducted by researchers from Western Michigan
University and Michigan State University's Kalamazoo Center for
Medical Studies, paints a disturbing picture of the quality of health
of babies born in southwestern Michigan.

Soiled diapers of newborns were analyzed and, according to the study's
initial findings, half of the children born in Kalamazoo hospitals
during a 10-month period in 2002 were exposed to lead while still in
the womb, and about 5 percent of babies born already had suffered lead
exposure at levels typically associated with neurological problems.

"It's scary," said Dr. Michael Liepman, director of psychiatry
research at MSU/KCMS and one of the study's main researchers. "If this
holds up we're going to have a real public health issue to deal with."

Lead exposure has been linked to mental retardation, seizures, delays
in motor development, kidney disease, and other developmental
problems, said Jay Means, professor of environmental chemistry and
toxicology at Western Michigan University and the study's lead
researcher, in a press release from the university.

Exposure in the womb to lead and other toxic chemicals was analyzed by
collecting blood from umbilical cords as well as samples from the
first sets of diapers soiled by newborns. The diapers contained
meconium, the bowel discharge from infants during their first 24 to 48
hours of life. It reflects the accumulation of bile secreted during
the last five months of a pregnancy.

Beginning in March 2002, Liepman, Means and their team worked with
staff members at Borgess Medical Center and Bronson Methodist Hospital
to collect nearly 3,000 cord blood and meconium samples from newborns.

The samples were used to check levels of heavy metals, pesticides,
PCBs and herbicides as well as recreational and psychoactive drugs.
About 200 randomly selected samples were screened to determine whether
and how much of a toxic substance was transferred between mother and
child. So far 110 meconiums and 24 cord bloods have been analyzed.

Liepman said the researchers ran into problems when state officials
said they would subpoena any records identifying test subjects' use of

"If you do this study and you won't give us this information, we will
throw you in jail," Liepman remembered law enforcement officials
saying to him.

Liepman said that has limited the effectiveness of the information
yielded by the study. Because samples are collected anonymously,
researchers have no way to provide feedback to parents whose children
may be at risk from high exposure levels.

In addition to the high levels of lead exposure, researchers found a
wide range of exposure to other dangerous substances. For instance,
PCBs and DDT, which can lead to reduced IQ and other developmental
problems, were found in about 15 percent of the samples.

Mercury and cadmium also showed up in 15 percent of the samples, while
the tobacco-related compound cotinine was found in more than 30
percent of the samples.

"It's kind of a little time bomb that's ticking away that nobody
realizes is going to have an effect on the health of your child," said
Liepman, who expects the study should be completed by the end of the
summer. "What I'm realizing is... they're not as protected as I might
have thought."

John J. Vander Meer covers health issues. He can be reached at
966-0665 or johnvm@battlecr.gannett.-com

Copyright 2003 Battle Creek Enquirer