A group of several dozen scientists from multiple fields have produced a report calling for action to reduce exposure to a raft of common chemicals that they say place American children “at an unacceptably high risk of developing neurodevelopmental disorders.” The authors have condemned the current system of evaluating chemicals and making public health decisions in the US as “fundamentally broken,” suggesting that allowing the general population to become exposed to certain substances may lead to conditions such as autism and other intellectual disabilities.
Appearing in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives, the report lists several chemicals found in common household products, as well as others that are used in agriculture, which it identifies as among the most neurotoxic. Among these are phthalates, which are regularly present in pharmaceuticals and plastics, yet which have been shown to impede the healthy functioning of the thyroid hormone – a vital hormone that plays a key role in brain development.
Several types of agricultural fertilizers, as well as lead and mercury, are also named as among the most harmful chemicals to the brains of infants. Worryingly, the authors report that many of these substances have been used so extensively that they are now virtually unavoidable in our contaminated environment.
In a statement, co-author Susan Schantz explained that “these chemicals are pervasive, not only in air and water, but in everyday consumer products that we use on our bodies and in our homes.” It is therefore perhaps unsurprising that a 2011 study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that 90 percent of pregnant women in the US had detectable levels of 62 harmful chemicals in their bodies.
Among these substances were the likes of polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs) and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), which can cross the placenta and affect the neurological development of fetuses.
While this certainly paints a grim picture, Schantz insists that all hope is not lost, claiming that “reducing exposures to toxic chemicals can be done, and is urgently needed to protect today’s and tomorrow’s children.”
Image: Many common chemicals may harm the neurological development of fetuses and infants. Julie McMahon
However, for this to occur, the study authors assert that current practices must be scrapped, and that “we must adopt a new framework for assessing chemicals that have the potential to disrupt brain development and prevent the use of those that may pose a risk."
For instance, they criticize the way in which, under the current system, “when a toxic chemical or category of chemicals is finally removed from the market, chemical manufacturers often substitute similar chemicals that may pose similar concerns or be virtually untested for toxicity.” By way of example, they cite when the federal government banned dangerous organophosphate pesticides, manufacturers responded by expanding the use of neonicotinoid and pyrethroid pesticides, both of which have been shown to harm the developing brain.
Perhaps most shockingly of all, the researchers point out that “the vast majority of chemicals in industrial and consumer products undergo almost no testing for developmental neurotoxicity or other health effects,” and they are desperately hoping for a drastic change of policy.
Pregnant women often have detectable levels of many dangerous chemicals in their bodies. Coffeemill/Shutterstock