How to Prevent Chemicals from Draining Our Brains

Personal Health

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.

My daughter’s generation.

Groups like NRDC (which publishes OnEarth), along with Healthy Child Healthy World, the Environmental Working Group, and others, advocate for removing some of the worst neurotoxic offenders from broad circulation—pesticides such as organophosphates—and to reform the ineffective or weak laws that are supposed to keep us safe from the substances (like those that turn up in household products, for example). But as a parent, I still feel there’s still a lot I need to do to try to limit my child’s exposure to neurodevelopmental toxicants.

To keep myself sane and feeling more in control, I put “to avoid” chemicals into categories that are easy for me to remember. And I’ve found that I can avoid them if I know what to look for. I start with the three big ones: VOCs, heavy metals, and pesticides. Here are my techniques for avoiding each:

VOCs: Volatile organic compounds have gotten a lot of attention over the past decade as manufacturers, spurred in part by the green building movement, found that consumers want to avoid this stuff. VOCs include neurotoxins such as acetone, benzene, and toluene. Paints and home furnishings are now widely labeled as low-VOC or zero-VOC, but you can also encounter VOCs in cleaning products, glues, and some markers, for example. When in doubt, I turn to the GoodGuide for help in finding safer alternatives.

Heavy metals: These include lead and methylmercury. Lead lurks in many older homes, buried in layers of aging paint. In our own century old home, I keep an eye out for cracked or peeling paint and repair chipped spots promptly. We had professionals replace the old windows that were covered with lead paint when we moved in. Simplest of all, we have a no-shoes policy in our house. Lead used in gasoline and paint has settled into roadside and backyard soil across the country, so simply taking off your shoes leaves invisible lead dust at the door. And as for what does get tracked in, suck it up with a high-efficiency particulate absorption (HEPA) vacuum, the only type that filters lead. It may not eliminate all lead sources, but it’s a start.

Like lead, some mercury exposure is unavoidable. One sure way to keep from overexposing your little ones is to watch how much and what kinds of seafood they eat. I use NRDC’s fish guide (recommended by the American Pregnancy Association) to identify low-mercury fish (that’s sustainably-harvested to boot), and I avoid high-mercury types altogether, such as tuna and swordfish. Other organizations like theMonterey Bay Aquarium and the Environmental Working Group also have guides. For the tuna-fish sandwich lovers out there (I am not one), go for chunk-light rather than albacore and follow guidelines based on body weight.

Pesticides: We buy organic produce as often as possible and don’t bring any off-the-shelf pesticides into our house at all. I don’t use DEET bug repellent. Instead, we manage to stay mostly bite-free using citronella and other herb-based balms—even in my mosquito-ridden urban backyard. To control pests at home, try some of these alternative remedies.

Though these solutions don’t cover every neurotoxic compound out there, they go a long way toward easing my mind that I’m doing what I can to reduce my daughter’s chemical burden.

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