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Toxic Chemicals Blamed for 'Silent Pandemic' of Brain Disorders in Children

  • Jessica Berman

Workers inspect an area outside a retaining wall around storage tanks where a chemical leaked into the Elk River at Freedom Industries storage facility in Charleston, West Virginia, Jan. 13, 2014.

Workers inspect an area outside a retaining wall around storage tanks where a chemical leaked into the Elk River at Freedom Industries storage facility in Charleston, West Virginia, Jan. 13, 2014.

Experts are calling for a targeted strategy to restrict the use of toxic industrial chemicals, which they say are causing a “silent pandemic” of brain disorders in children worldwide. Scientists are urging action as more so-called neurotoxins have been identified but remain largely unregulated.

A rise in the number of pediatric brain disorders, including attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, dyslexia, cerebral palsy and autism, may be the result of increased use of unregulated toxic chemicals around the world.

In the past seven years, researchers have identified six new chemicals that have been shown to be capable of damaging the brains of developing human fetuses and young children. The discovery brings to twelve the number of confirmed neurotoxins. Experts estimate one in six children worldwide suffers from a neurodevelopmental disorder.

Pediatrician Philip Landrigan, chairman of the Department of Preventive Medicine at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York, said exposure to neurotoxic chemicals was a serious problem that has reached pandemic proportions.

“Injury to the human brain in early life leads to problems like loss of IQ, shortening of attention span, behavioral problems. And these effects by and large tend to be permanent,” he said.

Pouring over scientific literature and hundreds of studies, Landrigan, along with the University of Southern Denmark’s Phillipe Grandjean, found the number of chemicals suspected of causing neurodevelopmental problems in children has also risen, from 202 to 214. They said there were some 80,000 industrial chemicals in widespread use which have never been tested for safety.

The toxins include fire retardants used in mattresses, draperies, carpets, clothing and toys, and solvents in cleaning agents.

The researchers are calling on countries to pass strong laws requiring companies to test chemicals before they may be marketed, as is required of all new drugs.

In an interview via Skype, Grandjean said identifying potential neurotoxins was not difficult.

“We have the methods available to test chemicals, whether they can damage brain development. The methods are there. So, this is just a matter of deciding this is the kind of testing we will do for chemical substances,” he said.

Grandjean and Landrigan were also calling for the establishment of an international clearinghouse to examine what’s known about chemicals and making that information publicly available.

Landrigan said the European Union had a strict chemical control law and many products, such as cosmetics containing hazardous chemicals which are banned in Europe, are being dumped in countries with weak laws.

Philip Landrigan and Phillipe Grandjean published their report on neurotoxins in the journal The Lancet Neurology.

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