My Sunday column looks at some fascinating research at the intersection of science and sociology. Essentially it argues that the pre-natal experience is particularly important because the brain and physiology are then coming together in ways that will shape a person for decades to come — and that all this has implications for fighting poverty.
I’ve come across bits and pieces of this research before. I’ve written about the importance of iodizing salt in poor countries, not to prevent goiters but because if a pregnant woman doesn’t have enough iodine in her body in the first trimester of pregnancy, her baby will have a lifelong IQ deficit of 10 to 15 points (that impact is particularly pronounced with female fetuses, for reasons that aren’t fully understood). Likewise, a few years ago in writing about the physiological roots of sexual orientation, I came across evidence that male homosexuality (but perhaps not female) is shaped in part by the level of androgens in the womb.
And more recently, I’ve written about chemicals such as endocrine disruptors on developing fetuses. These chemicals aren’t good for people at any age, but they seem particularly harmful for male fetuses at the earliest stages of pregnancy, and they may account for increases in male genital malformations like hypospadias. Presumably that’s because estrogen-like chemicals are swamping the natural levels of male hormones that govern the formation of the body.
But now the research is presenting a much more systemic vision of the degree to which toxins and stress alike shape a fetus. And the relevant point for poverty is that there’s some evidence that inner-city kids in particular are already at a disadvantage the moment they are born. Poor, inner-city women are exposed to more toxins and stress while pregnant, are more likely to smoke and drink, and get less pre-natal care. France, China and some other countries have intensive pre-natal programs, and maybe the implication is that we should try more intensive efforts with pregnant women in this country. For example, helping pregnant women eat healthily might have long-term implications for the well-being of their children.
Likewise, I think we need to make a priority of tougher regulation of chemicals, particularly endocrine disruptors that mimic hormones. They may not have much impact on adults, but perhaps a hugely disproportionate impact on fetuses at the earliest stages of pregnancy before the mother even knows that she is pregnant. All this is uncertain, of course, but endocrinologists seem increasingly to accept these linkages — and I think it would be a mistake to wait until we have 100 percent proof. As with tobacco, the industry will always insist upon certainty and argue that the evidence is ambiguous, and it will have a point. But where we’re experimenting with human health and our children’s future, waiting for proof seems to me the wrong standard.