If you get your news from the major mainstream news outlets, you may have missed this one:

Toxic chemicals may be triggering the recent increases in neurodevelopmental disabilities among children—such as autism, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, and dyslexia—according to a new study from Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH) and Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai. The researchers say a new global prevention strategy to control the use of these substances is urgently needed.


Published in Lancet Neurology this week, the study adds to the number of chemicals known to be toxic to developing brains:

In 2006, we did a systematic review and identified five industrial chemicals as developmental neurotoxicants: lead, methylmercury, polychlorinated biphenyls, arsenic, and toluene. Since 2006, epidemiological studies have documented six additional developmental neurotoxicants—manganese, fluoride, chlorpyrifos, dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane, tetrachloroethylene, and the polybrominated diphenyl ethers. We postulate that even more neurotoxicants remain undiscovered.


The Environmental Working Group explains why the brains of our children are so vulnerable from exposure to some pretty common chemicals:

  • A developing child’s chemical exposures are greater pound-for-pound than those of adults.
  • An immature, porous blood-brain barrier allows greater chemical exposures to the developing brain.
  • Children have lower levels of some chemical-binding proteins, allowing more of a chemical to reach “target organs.”
  • A baby’s organs and systems are rapidly developing, and thus are often more vulnerable to damage from chemical exposure.
  • Systems that detoxify and excrete industrial chemicals are not fully developed.
  • The longer future life span of a child compared to an adult allows more time for adverse effects to arise.


Sandra Young finds where some of these common chemicals are:

Banned in the United States in 1979, PCBs were used in hundreds of products including paint, plastic, rubber products and dyes. Toluene is in household products like paint thinners, detergents, nail polish, spot removers and antifreeze.


Even though PCB’s aren’t used to make things anymore doesn’t mean these toxic chemicals still don’t leach from landfills into our soil and water.  And toluene — a solvent and potent neurotoxin — has long been suspected in causing birth defects.  In fact, a recent study by the National Institute of Environmental Health (part of the NIH) implicates toluene (and benzene, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH), and other toxins) — chemicals used in natural gas development: drilling, fracking, extracting, and transporting — with specific birth defects in its succinct conclusion:

In this large cohort, we observed an association between density and proximity of natural gas wells within a 10-mile radius of maternal residence and prevalence of CHDs [congenital heart diseases] and possibly NTDs [neural tube defects].


Gary H. Cohen wonders what the heck is wrong with us:

According to the Center for Disease Control’s nationwide database, average Americans have scores of toxic chemicals in their bodies. We absorb these toxins through our food, our air, and our home and consumer products. Independent tests by the Environmental Work Group confirm that American children are being born pre-polluted, sometimes with more than 100 chemicals in their bodies, many of them linked to cancer, birth defects and reproductive problems. What kind of society allows these chemicals to trespass into the womb? How can we ever hope to prevent cancer if we are not committed as a nation to protecting American women and children from poisonous chemicals?


American children are born “pre-polluted?”  How do we know that?  The Environmental Working Group studied human umbilical cords:

Of the 287 chemicals we detected in umbilical cord blood, we know that 180 cause cancer in humans or animals, 217 are toxic to the brain and nervous system, and 208 cause birth defects or abnormal development in animal tests.


This is a complex issue.  Sitting in a warm house on a cold day, it’s also an inconvenient one.  How to balance our personal comfort with the biological imperative of clean air and clean water?  A PediaBlog reader and mother is worried:

Aside from eating organic foods and using “green” household cleaning products to hopefully eliminate chemical exposure, what do we as parents do? These chemicals are everywhere and it is a very hopeless feeling.


The first thing we could all do is at least acknowledge there is a problem.  We could talk amongst ourselves — maybe find some middle ground — instead of putting our heads in the sand.  As stewards of the earth, are we really okay poisoning nature, ourselves, and our offspring?  Are we?

It seems as if plenty of people are.  People who think the air smells fine and the water tastes good.  (Let’s not kid ourselves: air should have no smell — or at least no bad smell; water should have no taste.)  People who promise that fracking is safe, or that coal is clean, or that poisonous chemicals in a fetus’s cord blood is the price we must pay for living in the twenty-first century.  A good friend (whose opinion I do trust) warns me this type of “progress” is bringing its poison to my own town:

With probably 800+ leased properties in Peters Township, we are definitely close to our first wells.  EQT and Rice Energy have purchased more leases in the past year.

First comes the seismic testing, then the drilling, then the pipelines, then the compressor stations. After seeing for myself all the huge processing plants being built in eastern Ohio, it all became crystal clear: this will be one huge oil and gas patch with rapidly deteriorating air quality. I worry about the kids the most.


Me too.