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“mom on a mission,” continued... hunt down any health problems in their lineage but found none. A glass of wine while pregnant? Paint fumes? Pollution from freeways? New studies appear with regularity, suggesting causes but offering no definitive answers. “To be perfectly honest, I had given up trying to find out. I felt I would die never knowing what happened to my children. No one could tell me,” Escher said. But three years ago, Jill Escher had an epiphany, one that now consumes her waking hours and nighttime dreams. After prodding her mother for clues from her past, Escher discovered some hidden history: Her mother had sought help conceiving at a fertility clinic. As she grew in her mother’s womb, Escher was bombarded with synthetic hormones and other drugs. Now Escher’s dogged quest to unravel why this happened to her children has drawn the attention of scientists, and may ultimately lead to a greater understanding of how prescription drugs — and perhaps chemicals in the environment — may secretly and subtly harm the health of generations to come. “The autism explosion has been with us for more than two decades, and we

Michael Skinner is a pioneer in environmental epigenetics. wsu photo have little to show about what’s causing it,” Escher said. “We have many hundreds of thousands of functionally disabled people who didn’t exist before, and we have our heads in the sand.”

From generation to generation

Scientists know that some chemicals can alter developing embryos and fetuses, which can lead to disease later in life. In recent years, they’ve learned the damage doesn’t necessarily stop there. Something a pregnant woman is exposed to may alter not just her children, but also her grandchildren and possibly future generations. This is how the “germ line” hypothesis works: Cells in what is called a “germ line” form eggs in the female fetus and precursors to sperm in the male fetus. The germ line establishes an unbroken link from generation to generation. But when a pregnant woman is exposed to chemicals, the germ line may be altered. That would mean that eggs developing in the fetus — the future third generation — could be changed, leading to abnormalities or disease. The disrupted programming in how genes are turned on and off  — the very genes that instruct cell growth and function — may be passed on to more descendants.

The power of pharmaceuticals to do just that came to light with a synthetic estrogen that harmed at least two generations of offspring of women who took it. DES, or diethylstilbestrol, was prescribed to up to 10 million pregnant women in the United States and United Kingdom from 1938 to 1971 in an effort to prevent miscarriage and premature birth. DES daughters, exposed in the womb, are at an increased risk for a rare form of cancer of the vagina and cervix and other reproductive disorders, and the sons have increased risk for some reproductive problems. Startling scientists, DES granddaughters turned up with an increased incidence of urinary and genital malformations, irregular menstrual cycles and other abnormalities. These findings were profound: A single exposure of a pregnant woman could induce defects in her fetus’ developing eggs that are transmitted to the next generation. Now health experts probing autism wonder: Could this be a clue? Could a pregnant woman’s exposure to something alter the brains of her grandchildren?

A personal quest

When Escher’s first child Evan was born in 1997, he met his developmental markers.

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Inhealth October 2013  
Inhealth October 2013