We’ve reported for decades on the harm that toxic exposures cause both children and adults, so this topic is certainly not new. And it’s well known that fetuses and children are the most vulnerable. But now for the first time, a comprehensive alliance representing leading scientists, health professionals, and children’s and environmental health advocates agree that scientific evidence supports a link between exposures to toxic chemicals in air, water, food and everyday products and children’s risks for neurodevelopmental disorders.
The excerpts below are taken from a consensus statement published in Environmental Health Perspectives that calls for immediate action to significantly reduce exposures to toxic chemicals and protect brain development now and in the future.
We are witnessing an alarming increase in learning and behavioral problems in children. Parents report that 1 in 6 children in the United States, 17% more than a decade ago, have a developmental disability, including learning disabilities, ADHD, autism, and other developmental delays. As of 2012, 1 in 10 (> 5.9 million) children in the United States are estimated to have ADHD. As of 2014, 1 in 68 children in the United States has an autism spectrum disorder (based on 2010 reporting data) (CDC 2014).
The economic costs associated with neurodevelopmental disorders are staggering. On average, it costs twice as much in the United States to educate a child who has a learning or developmental disability as it costs for a child who does not. A recent study in the European Union found that costs associated with lost IQ points and intellectual disability arising from two categories of chemicals—polybrominated diphenyl ether flame retardants (PBDEs) and organophosphate (OP) pesticides—are estimated at 155.44 billion euros ($169.43 billion dollars) annually. A 2009 analysis in the United States found that for every $1 spent to reduce exposures to lead, a potent neurotoxicant, society would benefit by $17–$221.
Vulnerability of the Developing Brain to Chemicals
Many toxic chemicals can interfere with healthy brain development, some at extremely low levels of exposure. Research in the neurosciences has identified “critical windows of vulnerability” during embryonic and fetal development, infancy, early childhood and adolescence. During these windows of development, toxic chemical exposures may cause lasting harm to the brain that interferes with a child’s ability to reach his or her full potential.
The developing fetus is continuously exposed to a mixture of environmental chemicals. A 2011 analysis of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) biomonitoring data found that 90% of pregnant women in the United States have detectable levels of 62 chemicals in their bodies, out of 163 chemicals for which the women were screened. Among the chemicals found in the vast majority of pregnant women are PBDEs, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHS), phthalates, perfluorinated compounds, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), perchlorate, lead and mercury. Many of these chemicals can cross the placenta during pregnancy and are routinely detected in cord blood or other fetal tissues.
Prime Examples of Neurodevelopmentally Toxic Chemicals
The following list provides prime examples of toxic chemicals that can contribute to learning, behavioral, or intellectual impairment, as well as specific neurodevelopmental disorders such as ADHD or autism spectrum disorder:
- Organophosphate (OP) pesticides
- PBDE flame retardants
- Combustion-related air pollutants, which generally include PAHs, nitrogen dioxide and particulate matter, and other air pollutants for which nitrogen dioxide and particulate matter are markers
The United States has restricted some of the production, use and environmental releases of these particular chemicals, but those measures have tended to be too little and too late. We face a crisis from both legacy and ongoing exposures to toxic chemicals. For lead, OP pesticides, PBDEs and air pollution, communities of color and socioeconomically stressed communities face disproportionately high exposures and health impacts.
Read the full report here