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Welcome to PSR's Environmental Health Policy Institute, where we ask questions -- then we ask the experts to answer them. Join us as physicians, health professionals, and environmental health experts share their ideas, inspiration, and analysis about toxic chemicals and environmental health policy.


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Learning and Developmental Disabilities and the Safe Chemicals Act of 2011

Posted on January 5, 2012

By Joyce Martin and Maureen Swanson

This essay is in response to: Public Health and the Safe Chemicals Act

Environmental exposures play a key role in human growth and development. Toxic chemicals in products and in our homes, work places and communities can interfere with healthy brain development in the fetus, infants and children, potentially resulting in life-long problems with learning and behavior .

An estimated 12 million American children (nearly 17%) have one or more learning, developmental, or behavioral disability, (LDD) and these numbers appear to be increasing. LDD includes children and adults diagnosed with learning disabilities, intellectual and developmental disabilities, ADHD, autism, and other conditions involving brain development. Intellectual disability alone affects 1.4 million children, and one in 110 children is diagnosed with autism each year.

The connection between toxic environmental exposures and neurodevelopment is an emerging area of concern. Scientists have learned that the developing brain is much more susceptible to harm from toxic substances than the adult brain. For their size and weight, children consume more food, drink more fluids, and breathe more air than adults. Those with disabilities often spend more time on the floor and put more things in their mouths, exposing them to chemicals that accumulate in household dust or are in products.

Many aspects of learning and development are genetically influenced, but for the vast majority of LDDs there is no evidence that genetic factors are the predominant or only cause. The National Academy of Sciences (NAS) estimates that 25% of developmental and neurological deficits in children are due to the interplay between chemicals and genetic factors, and that 3% are caused by exposure to chemicals alone. Exposures to environmental toxins such as lead, mercury, PCBs, toluene, and other solvents have all been proven to cause permanent developmental disabilities.

There is an urgent need to reform the way our country regulates chemicals. The vast majority of chemicals are used in products without being tested first for health impacts. Not only is it important to test and prevent exposures to neurotoxins, it is also critical to evaluate chemicals that interfere with the hormonal system.

The proposed Safe Chemicals Act would go a long way to protect our families and children from toxic chemicals by requiring testing of chemicals for health effects before the chemicals could be used in products.  It would also reduce environmental exposures for the entire population and require safety standards to be especially protective of the developing fetus and children. The Act includes an emphasis on chemicals which affect “growth and development” and “the brain or nervous system” (Safer Chemicals Act, section 4 (23)), as exposures to chemicals that affect these areas contribute to learning and developmental disabilities.  

The consequences of LDD can be tragic and expensive. The familial, societal, and economic costs are immense, and the disabilities are usually life-long. For instance, special education services to all students with disabilities costs approximately $77.3 billion per year.  The NAS estimates that the costs of LDD due to environmental factors could be anywhere from $4.6 to $18.4 billion per year. A more recent study (Trasande et al) indicates that autism costs our country about $7.9 billion a year; intellectual disabilities cost around $5.4 billion a year; and attention deficit hyperactivity disorders cost $5 billion a year.

The enactment of the Safe Chemicals Act would reduce these costs per year in the future and eventually eliminate the preventable costs of these intellectual and developmental disabilities.

We believe that we can no longer ignore the mounting evidence that chemical exposures are contributing substantially to the epidemic of developmental disabilities. We need a preventive approach to toxic chemical policy at the federal level to actualize the concept that all children have the opportunity to lead healthier, fuller lives. The Safe Chemicals Act of 2011 would fulfill that goal.


Johanna Meara said ..

I concur that MUCH is going on in our environment. In 1954 I began working as a medical laboratory technologist and have been aware of the tremendous increase of chemicals around us--cleaning products, lawn care products, additives to food, etc. Now as the step-grandmother of a beautiful girl with autism, I have become increasingly concerned by the high number of children being diagnosed within the autism spectrum, the large number in classrooms accompanied by aids, the ADD and ADHD students, etc. In the 1980's I taught secondary level students and at that time had no autistic students although ADD and ADHD were already recognized as part of the school scene. How can learning take place when so many other things have an impact on the classroom environment? We need answers and we can no longer turn a blind eye to the many chemicals which have invaded our world since the 1950's. The Safe Chemicals Act will be a start in the right direction.

January 11, 2012
Marjorie Kircher, MS OTR said ..

I've worked in a school district for 25 years and have observed a phenomenal increase (during the past decade or so) of children having varying neurodevelopmental disorders, with increasing degrees of severity and behavioral effects. This compromises their ability to learn within their classrooms. One must wonder what is going on and how we can prevent this from continuing to rise. It has profound effects on families and society.

January 9, 2012

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