Canadian children may already be carrying environmental toxins in their bodies even before they are born, an environmental group says.

In a new report, Environmental Defence says it tested the umbilical cord blood of three babies born in Toronto and Hamilton and found evidence of 137 chemicals.

The chemicals included flame retardants, lead, PCBs, organochlorine pesticides and PFCs (perfluorochemicals), which are found in non-stick coatings.

The group says some of the chemicals have been banned for years, but were still found in the cord blood they tested, highlighting how long toxic chemicals can persist in our environment and bodies.

Some of the chemicals they found have been linked in some studies to health conditions such as cancer, and developmental and reproductive problems.

This is particularly worrisome, they say, because a fetus can absorb higher levels of toxic chemicals than adults in relation to their body size when they are growing so rapidly. As well, they say, their “detoxification mechanisms” are less developed than adults, meaning a fetus is not as efficient at flushing out chemicals.

The group says their findings suggest babies are exposed to chemicals in the womb because pollutants are so pervasive in our environment and our consumer products.

“Canadians should have the right to live in a clean, healthy environment. But our tests indicate that before birth, our bodies are already contaminated by hazardous chemicals, some of which have been banned for decades,” write the authors of the report, entitled “Pre-Polluted: A Report on Toxic Substances in the Umbilical Cord Blood of Canadian Newborns.”

Maggie MacDonald, the toxics program manager with Environmental Defence, says it's nearly impossible for expectant mothers to protect their children from toxic chemicals, because they are so pervasive in our environment.

“We want to tell mothers it’s not their fault that their babies are being polluted with these toxic chemicals,” she told CTV News Channel Tuesday.

MacDonald says consumers can play a role in reducing the prevalence of these chemicals, though, by not buying products that contain “chemicals of convenience,” such as fabrics with stain repellents or non-stick cookware.

“That then influences industry to stop using these chemicals in their products,” she said.

Canadians can also sign petitions and raise their voice to demand change. And governments can act by testing chemicals in products before they go on the marketplace.

“And when it’s decided between scientists and governments that certain chemicals are toxic to humans, clear, strict timelines need to be set so that these chemicals can be eliminated from our lives,” she said.

Douglas Haines, director of Health Canada’s Chemicals Surveillance Bureau, said it’s too early to determine how bad the exposure is on the human body.

“I certainly wouldn’t say it’s cause for panic,” he said told CTV News. “The levels that being found are relatively low and the potential impacts are very, very small and subtle.”

Still, Haines said Health Canada is also heavily involved in studying the potential health impacts of chemical exposures “so that we can better use that information as part of the health assessments and decisions that governments make to manage those risks to the Canadian population.”

To determine impact on the body and brain, Health Canada and scientists at the University of Montreal are now testing 2,000 Canadian moms and babies in their own environmental chemicals study.

The goal of the joint study is to determine the burden of environmental chemicals that mothers and infants are carrying, and assess the effects of exposure on infant development and growth.

“We have recruited in 10 cities approximately 2,000 mother-infant pairs,” said William Fraser of the University of Montreal. “The goal of the study is to determine the burden of environmental chemicals that mothers and infants are carrying, and also to assess the effects of exposure on infant development and growth.”

The study’s results are expected to be revealed next year.

With a report from CTV medical specialist Avis Favaro and producer Elizabeth St. Philip