Science for Solutions: Save the brains | Pesticide Action Network
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Science for Solutions: Save the brains

Emily Marquez's picture
Kids drawing brain

This post is part one in our “Science for Solutions” blog series that amplifies scientist voices and underscores the importance of independent science as the foundation for evidence-based policymaking and narrative shifts.

With pesticide drift sweeping across the South and Midwest this summer, and EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt’s recent decision to keep the brain-harming pesticide chlorpyrifos on the market, children’s and community health is at the front of our minds here at PAN.

While policymakers don’t always (or often enough) follow the conclusions of scientists as we’d wish, independent research has led to many shifts in rules and regulations that have increased public wellbeing. Protecting children’s developing brains and bodies is one area where there has been great progress — and there is still much work to do.

A vulnerable population

Scientists have been asserting for years that kids' brains are at risk from toxic environmental chemicals, and the effects of these chemicals on the developing brain can have implications for the long term. Prenatal exposures from chemicals that cross the placenta are a particular concern — especially when those chemicals have been linked to neurodevelopmental harms.

In short, children are susceptible to the harms of chemical exposure from the time they're in the womb. A 2011 analysis of Centers for Disease Control data indicated that 90% of pregnant women in the U.S. have detectable levels of 62 environmental chemicals (out of the 163 chemicals screened).

Last July, Project TENDR, a group of eminent scientists, health professionals, and advocates who focus on environmental neurotoxic chemicals, released a consensus statement that called for reducing toxic chemicals exposures in the environment and consumer products.  Among the chemicals identified by Project TENDR (Targeting Environmental Neurodevelopmental Risks) were flame retardants, lead and organophosphate insecticides — a group of pesticides that includes chlorpyrifos.

From research to action

Even though the science on chlorpyrifos is very clear, decisionmakers at all levels are hesitant to disrupt the status quo and remove Dow’s insecticide from the market. But we have seen science-driven policy improve public health — especially for kids.

Because of independent research, we know that there is no safe level of lead when it comes to children's brains, and there is still much work to be done — with heartless, and thoughtless, cuts to EPA's lead programs proposed recently and contaminated water in Flint, Michigan, and elsewhere. But when the U.S. phased out leaded gasoline in the 1970s and restricted lead in paint, we saw dramatic decreases in the amount of lead in the U.S. population.

And that counts as a significant public health win.

A long way still to go

This work continues, for lead and more. In May 2017, Project TENDR held a congressional briefing to discuss their national strategy to eliminate lead poisoning in U.S. children in five years. They recommended that the current national standards for lead in dust, soil, air and drinking water be updated, because we know that these standards fail to protect pregnant women and children. Another recommendation is that federal, state and local governments do more to identify and remediate sources of lead exposure, and target populations of children who are disproportionately exposed to lead.

Children living in pre-1978 housing are among the most at risk, due to their exposures to lead paint. And a 1996 analysis indicated that children with higher blood lead levels were more likely to be African-American, to live in rental housing and to have a household income of less than $15,500.

High cost of ignoring science

These costs to human health are preventable. More than a half million children age five or younger have blood lead concentrations greater than 5 μg/dL. Children above this blood lead level will lose, on average, about six points from their IQ. Cohort studies on chlorpyrifos exposure have also found decreases in IQ associated with prenatal exposure.

I don't like economic arguments when talking about environment and health, but it's worth mentioning that the financial costs are also high. In the U.S., it costs twice as much to educate a child with a learning or developmental disability compared to a child who does not have an intellectual disability.

Increased risks from neurotoxic environmental chemicals can be reduced if policymakers listen to scientists like those who are part of Project TENDR, among many others. Scientists have gathered enough data over time to know about the causes and the risks — and what to do about them.

Emily Marquez
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Emily Marquez is PAN's Staff Scientist. She is a biologist with a background in endocrine disruption and environmental toxicology in reptiles. In addition to supporting scientific research for PAN’s campaigns, Emily trains community members in using PAN’s Drift Catcher to monitor for pesticide drift. Follow @EmilyAtPan