Is western society toxic to the development of children’s brains? We are routinely exposed to several classes of chemicals that are known to be harmful to neurodevelopment. Recently, a report stated that out of 163 potentially harmful chemicals, 90% of pregnant women tested positive for 62 of them. How does this affect our children?
The Chemicals That Harm Our Children’s Brains
The Children’s Environmental Health Research Center at the University of Illinois identified chemicals that cause the most concern:
lead & mercury
organophosphate pesticides used in agriculture and in gardens
air pollution from the burning of solid and fossil fuels
polychlorinated biphenyls, known as PCBs, were once used as coolants. Despite a ban on the production of PCBs in the late 1970s, they are likely to remain in the environment for decades
polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs) which are used as flame retardants
phthalates are used to in a wide variety of products. They are used in personal care products, children’s toys (as well as adult’s toys!), cleaning products, perfumes, coatings on pills and supplements to protect against stomach acid, paints, textiles, food products, cosmetics, the list goes on and on.
The Dangers Of Phthalates
Susan Schantz is the director of the Children’s Environmental Health Research Centre. The centre studies the effects of phthalates on children’s brain development. Previously, it found a possible association between phthalates and childhood obesity. In the study of 387 children 97% tested positive for phthalates. Furthermore, overweight kids had higher concentrations of phthalates than those with lower BMIs.
“Phthalates are everywhere; they’re in all kinds of different products. We’re exposed to them every day,” Susan Schantz.
Elsewhere, Colombia University found a possible link between phthalate exposure in pregnancy and reduced IQ in children at age seven. The researchers studied 328 low-income women and their children from pregnancy onwards. They tested the women’s exposure to four phthalates in the third trimester. Then they tested the children’s IQ at age seven. They found that higher concentrations of two types of phthalates were associated with as much as a seven point drop in IQ in their children.
While there has been some regulation to ban phthalates from toys of young children, there is no legislation governing exposure during pregnancy, which is likely the most sensitive period for brain development,” Dr. Factor-Litvak, Colombia University
The researchers note that it is impossible to avoid phthalates completely in pregnancy. However, they advised pregnant women to :
avoid microwaving food in plastic containers
stop using scented products including air fresheners & dryer sheets
avoid recyclable plastics labelled 3, 6 & 7
Also, prenatal exposure to phthalates may affect childhood asthma. It might also impair cognitive and motor development.
A study by Colombia University into prenatal exposure to PBDE flame retardants found a possible link to attention problems in childhood. PBDEs are used in many products to make them less flammable. It’s likely that your furniture, textiles and electric wiring contain this chemical. Unfortunately, PBDE leaches out. We can accidentally ingest PBDEs through household dust.
Despite a phasing-out of PBDEs they are still abundant in the environment. As a result they accumulate in animals as well. When we eat meat, dairy or fatty fish we increase our exposure.
The Colombia University study followed over 200 New York women and their children from birth to the age of seven. All of the women were pregnant during the Twin Towers terrorist attack in 2011. The study set to find out if exposure to airborne dust and pollutants affects the development of the children. When tested at the ages of three, four and seven years old, the children whose mothers had the highest concentrations of PBDEs were twice as likely to have attention problems compared to the other children. Although the researchers note that the mothers judged the attention problems themselves rather than an independent test.
Previous research into prenatal exposure into PBDEs suggest links to hyperactivity and impulsivity.
What Of The Rest?
The good news is that many of these chemicals are in decline. PCBs are not being produced anymore. Phthalates are being phased out of many products, as are PBDEs. Yet, they stay in the environment for years or even decades.
And what about the neurotoxins we don’t know about? Many scientists want more testing.
“For most chemicals, we have no idea what they’re doing to children’s neurodevelopment,” Susan Schantz.
A study by Harvard School of Public Health and Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai hospital in Chicago called neurotoxic chemicals a “silent pandemic”. They authors argue that these chemicals erode intelligence and cause behavioural problems.
“Very few chemicals have been regulated as a result of developmental neurotoxicity,” Philippe Grandjean, Harvard School of Public Health, and co-author Philip Landrigan, Dean for Global Health at Mount Sinai
The authors call for mandatory worldwide testing of chemicals for neurotoxicity. We have the technology but so far we lack the political will. For all of our children it is time that this changed.
Video by Steve Drake, Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology, Courtesy of the University Of Illinois