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Conservative statistics reveal that 12 out of every 100 babies born in the United States this year will have a serious, often incurable mental or physical health disorder. While statisticians disagree as to whether we are experiencing an epidemic of birth defects, they all acknowledge that the number of disabled newborns has doubled since the late 1950s and that some of the worst abnormalities are increasing at alarming rates. Of the 16 major (“sentinel”) defects under surveillance at the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) — defects from missing limbs to missing brains — seven have increased at rates ranging from 20 to 300 percent.

Recent studies have linked specific environmental and chemical agents directly to some of the defects that are increasing. Critics charge there has been a rise of birth defect clusters around environmental catastrophes:

— Love Canal where studies show that 56 percent of the children born near the notorious toxic dump were mentally or physically disabled; Shiprock, New Mexico, near a uranium mining site, where there are so many deformed children — some missing parts of their brains and bodies, others with rare syndromes that will confine them to wheelchairs for all of their days — that the community now hosts its own Special Olympics, fielding team after team of “special” children; Woburn, Massachusetts, where the childhood cancer rate is two and a half times the national average, a “cluster” of children was recently discovered with birth deformities of the central nervous system, eyes, and ears; the community did its own epidemiological research and pinpointed birth defects in an area of town where buried toxic wastes had contaminated local drinking wells.

If Love Canal, Shiprock, and Woburn were the only communities in the United States experiencing extraordinary rates of birth defects, they could be passed off as statistical flukes. However, they are but three of hundreds of birth defect clusters currently known to the birth defects branch of the CDC in Atlanta, where 50 new “potentially important” clusters are reported every year.

Nonetheless, government officials remain unwilling to acknowledge a correlation between high birth defects and environmental disasters. This attitude is reflected in the CDC allocation of just $l.3 million a year from a total budget of $380 million to monitor birth defects; it investigates, at most, three or four of the 50 important clusters reported to it each year.

Terata is drawn from teratogen — an agent that the mother comes into contact with or ingests — such as a drug or chemical — that breaks through the placental barrier to assault the fetus; radiation is also an agent that can pass directly through the mother’s body to the fetus; the word teratogen is derived from the medial term teratogenesis, which literally means “the growth of monsters.” If the birth defect crisis continues, “Terata” will become a household word.


MOTHER JONES, January 1985, “Terata,” by Christopher Norwood, and “Manhattan Project For The Unborn,” by Mark Dowie, pp 15-21.