Children Have Become Unwitting 'Chemical Sentinels' for the U.S.

CC BY 2.0. Nicolas Alejandro

"Our very great concern is that children worldwide are being exposed to unrecognized toxic chemicals that are slowly eroding intelligence, disrupting behaviors, truncating future achievements and damaging societies."

Two scientists who, last year, warned in The Lancet of a “silent pandemic” of toxins damaging the brains of unborn children in North America have spoken out yet again. Doctors Philippe Grandjean of Harvard Medical School and Philip Landrigan of the Mount Sinai School of Medicine have released a list of 12 chemicals commonly found in food, clothing, furniture, and the environment that they believe are causing not only lower IQ levels but also increasing the incidence of ADHD and autism in children.

It is a grave statement that merits a national outcry. As James Hamblin explains in an excellent article in The Atlantic, “The Toxins that Threaten Our Brains,” children are our society’s unwitting chemical sentinels. Children are far more susceptible to the negative effects of chemical exposure than adults, and yet they are largely unprotected. In the historic case of lead, it wasn’t until enough children began showing signs of lead poisoning that politicians paid any attention. It’s not for lack of knowing, but more for the lack of political will and the lobbying strength of the chemical industries:

“By 1969, microbiologist and Pulitzer-Prize-winning writer René Dubos said that the problem of lead exposure was ‘so well-defined, so neatly packaged, with both causes and cures known, that if we don't eliminate this social crime, our society deserves all the disasters that have been forecast for it.’”

Many consumers assume there is a comprehensive and trustworthy process of vetting chemicals before putting them on the market, but that is misconception. The United States still has its Toxic Substances Control Act, passed in 1976 by President Gerald Ford, but Landrigan describes it as “an obsolete, toothless, broken piece of legislation” that wasn’t even able to ban asbestos, a known carcinogenic; it continues to be used in the U.S. Upon its creation, the TSCA grandfathered in a shocking 62,000 chemicals with no toxicity testing required whatsoever.

The fact is, it’s a chemical Wild West out there and consumers are very much on their own.

The children of low-income families face the greatest dangers because their parents’ limited resources can’t provide them with the pricey flame-retardant-free furniture, organic food, and natural cleaning agents and body care products that wealthier families can afford (although few make it a priority, more due to lack of awareness or taking the problem seriously enough).

The households and lifestyles of Americans are so contaminated and the long-term effect on children is so serious that Dr. David Bellinger, professor of neurology at Harvard Medical School, estimated in a 2012 paper that 41 million IQ points have been collectively forfeited as a result of exposure to lead, mercury, and organophosphate pesticides. Of those, 16.9 million are due to pesticides alone. Cognitive decline has major financial repercussions for the nation. Economist Elise Gould estimates that for Americans who were six years old or younger in 2006, “lead exposure will result in a total income loss of between $165 and $233 billion.”

Many hope that chemical testing regulations in the U.S. will tighten up, perhaps following the European tiered approach to testing:

“If a compound is produced in small amounts, only some cursory information is required. If greater amounts are produced or imported, the EU requires more in-depth testing, such as animal experiments and two-generation studies.”

There seems to be little hope that TSCA will face tighter regulations from the Environmental Protection Agency, under whose jurisdiction it falls, since the EPA already says it’s doing a lot. But not everyone agrees that the EPA’s dosages are safe for everyone.

It’s like climate change, Grandjean says. “We don’t have the luxury of time to sit back and wait while science figures out what’s really going on, what the mechanisms are, what the doses are, and that sort of thing.”

The 12 chemicals on Grandjean's and Landrigan's list:

Manganese (used to keep metal from corroding, found in stainless steel and soda cans)
- Fluoride (prevents tooth decay but dangerous in higher amounts)
- Chlorpyrifos (a pesticide used on food and non-food crops)
- Polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs)
- Tetrachloro-ethylene (PERC)
- Arsenic (used in pyrotechnics, bronzing, pesticide production)
- Lead
- Mercury (released from coal smokestacks and accumulated in fish)
- Toluene (used to improve octane ratings in gasoline, used in nylon, adhesives, paints, and plastic soda bottles)
- Ethanol
- Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs keep houses from catching on fire, used in insulation and engine coolant)