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How to Prevent Chemicals from Draining Our Brains

We're exposed to neurotoxicants every day, including via pesticides in our food and water, particles in vehicle exhaust, and flame retardants in upholstery and upholstered furniture.

Photo Credit: Shutterstock.com/ somchai rakin


This story first appeared in OnEarth Magazine.

My daughter Barrett turned two last month, and she’s becoming quite the conversationalist. On preschool days we start our mornings by talking about whom she’ll see and what she’ll do. We walk down the street talking about shapes and colors and feelings and foods that she might serve to her dolls at a tea party.

Though her strong language skills are a good sign, I have no idea what Barrett’s ultimate intellectual capability might be. Genes have a lot to do with that, but so, it increasingly seems, does her environment. I have nearly complete control over her educational environment at this point, but much less so on her capital “E” environment—the one that you probably think of when you hear the word.

So although I’m concerned about what her teachers and I put into my child’s mind, I’m just as worried about what is put into her brain as a result of the chemicals she’s exposed to. I take care to limit the potentially harmful ones that enter our home in the form of cleaning products, pesticides, shampoos, and even toys and food. I’m looking out for things like lead and mercury, which are known to cause neurodevelopmental damage. But I also take steps to keep out substances that aren’t so well known—solvents found in paints, among other things, such as benzene, acetone, and toluene—that also impair neurological function.

Still, I can’t keep her safe from everything. As Florence Williams writes in the disturbing new cover story for OnEarth, “ Generation Toxic,” America’s young children are exposed to suspected neurotoxicants every day, including via pesticides in our food and water, particles in vehicle exhaust, and flame retardants in upholstery and upholstered furniture. Researchers are increasingly making links between those and similar neurotoxicants in our air and water, and cognitive and behavioral issues in our children. Today, one in six children suffers from some sort of cognitive impairment—including learning disabilities, autism, ADHD, and other conditions—and  according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, neither genetics nor more powerful diagnostic tools can explain that away.

Recently I came across  an opinion piece in Environmental Health News that gave a rather sobering name to this phenomenon: “chemical brain drain.” The author, Philippe Grandjean, is a Danish research physician who holds joint appointments at the Harvard School of Public Health and the University of South Denmark. He has spent the better part of three decades studying the effects of environmental chemicals on the human brain. In 2006  Grandjean published a study with Philip Landrigan, head of children’s environmental health at Mount Sinai Medical School in New York City, in which the pair reviewed all the known neurotoxic chemicals they could find.

They listed more than 200—ranging from solvents and pesticides to heavy metals—and argued that although the studies they were looking at had focused on adults, the effects on kids were likely to be worse because children’s neurological systems are still developing. What’s more, the number of chemicals they found to be neurotoxic in laboratory studies on non-humans ran into the thousands, indicating that there might be even more substances out there in our environment to worry about.

Grandjean has since stepped out of the lab and onto a soapbox, advocating for tighter regulations on these neurotoxic chemicals in his recent book  Only One Chance: How Environmental Pollutants Impair Brain Development—and How to Protect the Brains of the Next Generation. It took us far too long to do something about now-familiar villains like lead and methylmercury. Researchers reported the chronic and acute poisonings that resulted in irreversible brain damage to children around the globe for decades before officials put regulations into place. Grandjean’s fear, now, is that by failing to recognize the cumulative toll of the many neurotoxic chemicals circulating in our children’s environment—and bloodstream—we will miss our chance to stave off the collective dumbing down of an entire generation.

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