Give brains a chance, say scientists
Scientists issued yet another wake up call last week, adding more chemicals to the list of those known to harm our children's brains. These neurotoxicants — including the common pesticide chlorpyrifos — are linked to falling IQs, increased risk of ADHD and other developmental disorders.
Now here's the really extraordinary part of the story: the researchers conclude that it's time to "accelerate the translation of science into prevention." In other words, we need to do something about this problem. Now.
The article, published in The Lancet, reviews the latest studies on neurodevelopmental harms of chemicals. It updates a similar 2006 review done by the same public health scientists: Dr. Philip Landrigan at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York and Dr. Philippe Grandjean from Harvard School of Public Health in Boston.
Based on the latest evidence, Landrigan and Grandjean add seven more chemicals to their list of those known to be toxic to children's developing brains — more than doubling the number they flagged eight years ago. The new list includes both legacy chemicals and those still being used today: DDT, chlorpyrifos, manganese, flouride, tetrachloroethylene and PBDEs.
They also make very clear that many more brain-harming chemicals are likely out there, they just haven't been studied for neurodevelopmental effects yet.
What does it all mean?
We have a serious problem on our hands. Landrigan and Grandjean outline what it can mean when development of the brain — which they note is "an extremely vulnerable organ" — is derailed by chemical exposures during pregnancy and early childhood.
The problem goes well beyond increased risk of ADHD and falling IQs. As Landrigan explained in an interview with CNN:
“We're talking about emotion problems, less impulse control, (being) more likely to make bad decisions, get into trouble, be dyslexic and drop out of school.... These are problems that are established early, but travel through childhood, adolescence, even into adult life.”
The researchers then outline what these shifts mean at a societal level, both in terms of actual costs (like increased health care and reduced productivity) and in terms of lost human potential. In truth, the latter is such a profound loss it's simply impossible to quantify.
We're all exposed to a wide variety of potentially health-harming chemicals every day. When it comes to pesticides, we know they're in the air we breathe, the water we drink and the food we eat — usually at very low levels. But the science has been clear for years that even these tiny amounts can be harmful, especially to children's rapidly developing bodies.
Landrigan and Grandjean make a compelling case that it's time to act on what we know:
“We know enough about this to say we need to put a special emphasis on protecting developing brains. We are not just talking about single chemicals anymore. We are talking about chemicals in general. This does not necessarily mean restrict the use of all chemicals, but it means that they need to be tested whether they are toxic to brain cells or not.”
To control what they call "the pandemic of developmental neurotoxicity," the scientists propose a global prevention strategy that includes testing chemicals for their neurotoxic effects — and then taking action to prevent exposure. This is a very powerful idea.
We already know that changing the rules can have real impacts. Body burden data recently released by the Centers for Disease Control provide an encouraging example. The levels of chlorpyrifos measured in children's bodies are much lower since use in homes was banned back in 2001. This is very good news. Levels of chlorpyrifos that remain — in both children and adults — are probably from ongoing exposure to residues in our food.
Be part of the solution!
To me it's ironic (and disturbing) that just as scientists are raising the alarm about the harms of low-level chemical exposures, industry is launching a new, aggressive effort to question the value of pesticide-free and organic food.
The way I see it, buying food (when I can) from farmers who don't use hazardous chemicals does much more than protect my family from residues that might harm our health. It also protects kids and families in rural communities, helps create a safer workplace for farmworkers — and grows the market for safer fruits and vegetables for all. To borrow a recent quote from President Obama, "a win, win, win situation."
We can all do something to protect children from pesticide harms, whether in our homes, schools, communities or statehouses. Check out our new Healthy Kids! online toolkit, and learn how you can be part of the solution.
After all, the stakes are pretty darn high. As study co-author Grandjean notes, “You only have one chance to develop a brain.”