A silent epidemic of neurotoxins is threatening our children's brains

Leonardo da Vinci drawing of a fetus
CC BY 2.0 Eric Atkins

A plethora of toxic chemicals is endangering and poisoning our children’s brains. The problem is so serious that two American doctors are calling for a global overhaul of the chemical regulatory process in order to protect children’s brains, but regulations cannot -- or will not, due to industry pressure -- keep up with the research that continues to reveal neurotoxins all around us. The biggest window of vulnerability to chemicals is between conception and early childhood. This is serious because any negative effects on the brain are permanent.

“When this happens in children or during pregnancy, those chemicals are extremely toxic, because we now know that the developing brain is a uniquely vulnerable organ.”

Dr. Philip Landrigan of Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York and Dr. Philippe Grandjean of the Harvard School of Public Health in Boston have spent 30 years studying industrial chemicals and have published lists of the worst neurotoxins. These “impact brain development and can cause a number of neurodevelopmental disabilities including attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, autism, dyslexia and other cognitive damage” (CNN).

The neurotoxins that the doctors have identified so far are lead, methylmercury, arsenic, polychlorinated biphenyls (or PCBs, which have been banned in the U.S. since 1979), toluene (used in household products like paint thinner, nail polish, spot remover), manganese, fluoride, tetrachloroethylene (a solvent), polybrominated diphenyl ethers (flame retardants), and two agricultural pesticides, one of which is DDT. Cosmetics, which contain phthalates in the U.S. but are banned in Europe, are another major area of concern.

Fluoride might come as a surprise to those who live in towns or cities where tap water contains fluoride. Landrigan and Grandjean looked at 27 studies of children in China who were exposed to high levels of fluoride in drinking water. The data suggests a decline of about seven IQ points on average among those children.

Landrigan and Grandjean believe that all new chemicals and those currently in use must be tested for developmental neurotoxicity. “We have the test methods and protocols to determine if chemicals are toxic to brain cells [but] it’s a matter of political will. We have tried in this country over the last decade to pass chemical safety legislation but the chemical industry and their supporters have successfully beat back the effort.”

As a parent, I realize I can’t wait around for the chemical industry to clean up its act, so that’s why it’s crucial to take personal steps toward detoxifying my children’s lives. My strategy includes buying second-hand clothes that won’t off-gas like new ones do; choosing toys made of natural materials over plastic ones; using all-natural bath and body care products, such as pure castile soap and coconut oil; using natural household cleaners; avoiding the use of neurotoxin-laden cosmetics for myself; and minimizing the presence of plastic in the house.

Tags: Babies | Chemicals | Health | Kids