Poisoning the Next Generation of Minds: A Plea for Reform in a Toxic World
Meg Cronin, PSR Toxics Intern
March 3, 2014
We are all exposed to potentially harmful toxic chemicals on a daily basis, whether we recognize it or not. From the gasses emanating from our beautiful new wall paint to the pesticides on our produce, chemical exposure is virtually unavoidable. However, a new study of toxics by experts from the Harvard School of Public Health and the School of Medicine at Mount Sinai has called alarming attention to a horrifying new angle: The proliferation of chemicals in our environment is handicapping our children’s minds.
The study, “Neurobehavioral effects of developmental toxicity” by Dr. Philippe Grandjean and Dr. Phillip Landrigan, published recently in The Lancet Neuorology, exposed what they call the “global silent pandemic of neurodevelopmental toxicity.” “Neurodevelopmental toxicity” is brain damage, usually of the untreatable and permanent kind. Their study notes that 10-15% of all babies have neurobehavioral disorders, like autism or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and the number is rising. Many more suffer from undiagnosed IQ loss.
While some cases are accounted for by genetic factors, 60-70% of abnormal brain development cases are attributed to a child’s environment. Brain development is most rapid and most vulnerable in fetuses and small children, meaning that chemicals that would not affect adult cognition could cause permanent and devastating brain injury to a child, even at very low levels of exposure.
There are currently 12 known developmental neurotoxicants-- among them lead, arsenic, and mercury. Of the 200 neurotoxicants for adults and over 1000 for animals tested so far, many more are expected to be found to be developmental. Grandjean and Landrigan argue that the number of proven developmental neurotoxicants is so low because they are much harder to test for and classify. That’s because potentially dangerous levels are so low, children generally have many chemicals in their bodies, and studies are expensive and time-consuming, often taking 5 to 10 years to track even partial brain development.
The root of this “silent pandemic” is the deeply flawed system that regulates chemicals in commerce. The rule in the U.S. is that chemicals are considered safe until proven otherwise. This system is rigged, favoring chemical manufacturers and commercial users while putting the onus on the victims to prove -- in a painstaking, expensive, and seemingly impossible process – that a chemical is unsafe for use.
Grandjean and Landrigan suggest, the following policy changes: 1) testing for safety of existing industrial chemicals already in use; 2) creation of a pre-market evaluation system for new chemicals, and 3) formation of a neurotoxicity clearinghouse that considers the societal consequences of approving chemicals that have slightly less than absolute proof of toxicity.
Pushing policy makers to overhaul Toxic Substance Control Act to remove certain chemicals from the marketplace and protect public health should be our first priority. Until such an overhaul, our children will remain industry’s test subjects – and their brains will be the victims.
Go to http://tinyurl.com/PSR-Toxics to find out more about toxic chemicals and the campaign to reform U.S. laws to protect the health of all communities.