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How Kids' Brains Are at Risk From a Barrage of Common Chemicals

Kids today are growing up in a toxic soup and we're just beginning to understand how these chemicals may be affecting their health and cognitive development.

Photo Credit: Shutterstock.com/ Pavel L Photo and Video


This story first appeared in OnEarth Magazine.

Carlos Jusino grew up a typical kid in Harlem, rollerblading near the Hudson River, eating at the McDonald’s on 145th Street and Broadway, hanging out with friends in his building. Also typical was the fact that many of Jusino’s neighbors and family members, including his mother, had asthma. “When I was growing up, she went to the hospital about once a month for asthma,” he says. Although he didn’t know it at the time, more than 30 percent of the kids in Harlem have asthma, one of the highest rates in the country.

Jusino’s family was worried about the air quality around Harlem, but most of its attention was directed to a sewage treatment facility built in 1985 along the West Side Highway next to the Hudson, where a foul-smelling settling tank lay exposed. The plant galvanized the community, including a group of environmental justice activists known as the Sewage Seven. They sued the city and won a settlement in 1994 that helped establish air-monitoring stations around the plant.

Harlem is plagued by health conditions not uncommon among the urban poor. In addition to suffering from asthma, children here have high rates of obesity and, perhaps most alarming, significant learning disabilities. Increasingly, medical researchers are discovering that all of these syndromes are linked at least in part to environmental factors, from nutrition to tobacco smoke to industrial chemicals. Jusino, like many, was stunned to learn that pollution’s biggest target may be not our lungs but our brains.

Researchers are finding the Harlem population to be a valuable source of data, and what they’re learning is both illuminating and worrisome. And if you think poor air quality is limited to disadvantaged urban neighborhoods, think again. Harlem’s problems are shared by the rest of the country. If clues can be found here, the lessons can apply elsewhere.

As many as one in six children nationwide has a neurodevelopmental disability, including autism, speech and language delays, and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that ADHD alone affects 14 percent of children, although experts debate whether it may be overdiagnosed. In any case, the number of children needing special education services has increased 200 percent in the past 25 years. In a 2000 report, the National Research Council of the National Academy of Sciences estimated that 3 percent of brain disorders are caused outright by environmental toxicity and an additional 25 percent by environmental exposures interacting with genetic susceptibilities.

Every day, America’s pregnant women and young children are exposed to a trifecta of suspected neurotoxicants in the form of pesticides (mostly via food and water but also home, lawn, and farm applications), polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, or PAH (mostly via exposure to vehicle exhaust), and polybrominated diphenyl ethers, or PBDEs (flame retardants, mostly in upholstered furniture and electronics). The CDC routinely samples Americans for these and other industrial by-products in our bodies, so we know their reach is pervasive. But we are not all equally exposed, and some of us appear to be more vulnerable to them for reasons that may include genetic susceptibility, poor nutrition, stress, and age.

Jusino joined a youth group through his high school in Washington Heights in 1994 and started mapping, block by block, local sources of pollution, including dry cleaners and diesel-spewing bus depots. In 1997 he joined the staff of West Harlem Environmental Action (We Act), a group co-founded by Peggy Shepard, one of the Sewage Seven. Today, as a GIS mapping specialist and technician, he is the proud chief caretaker of Aethan, a retro-looking black box that records real-time black carbon pollution. The size of a microwave oven, the Aethalometer (from the Greek word meaning “blacken with soot”) sends out several feet of PVC pipe through a window overlooking the corner of 152nd Street and Amsterdam Avenue, where the We Act offices occupy a light-filled, redbrick former police precinct house.

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