Prove your humanity

Evidence Linking Chemicals and Learning Disorders Has Reached a ‘Tipping Point’

Toxic chemicals—including the ones found in everyday products—are increasing children’s risk for neurodevelopmental disorders like autism and attention deficit disorder. That was the headline-grabbing takeaway from a recent statement from Project TENDR, a group representing scientists, health professionals and environmental advocates. The group analyzed hundreds of peer-reviewed studies and says the evidence has now reached a “tipping point” that demands more public action.

Recently, we talked with project TENDR co-founder Maureen Swanson to hear more about their findings and what they say can be done about the problem.

The Allegheny Front: So the kinds of disorders we’re talking about are really complicated. They’re thought to have multiple causes, including genetics. So what role do chemicals and environmental toxins play in children developing these disorders?

Maureen Swanson: These disorders are very complex. Nutrition, social stressors—multiple factors come into play. But with children, especially during prenatal development, the brain develops very rapidly. Even a low level of exposure to certain chemicals can disrupt processes. And children’s metabolism is such that they’re taking in more air, more water, more food per pound of body weight than adults do. So an exposure that wouldn’t hurt an adult can be very detrimental to a child. Young children also spend a lot of time on the floor and put their hands in their mouths, and a number of these chemical and pollutants settle into household dust.

AF: So what kinds of chemical are we talking about here?

MS: The scientists and health professionals in TENDR identified five chemicals that are really putting children at risk: Certain pesticides—organophosphates—that are heavily used in agriculture; air pollutants, which people think of with asthma or heart disease, but now the body of scientific evidence shows that air pollution is detrimental to brain development; certain flame retardants that are found in furniture and electronics; lead, of course; and then, a group of chemicals that was named as an emerging concern—phthalates—which are used in food production, food packaging and personal care products. So in some ways, these chemicals are everywhere. They’re in our homes and schools and products. But they’re also chemicals that can be replaced with safer alternatives or can be reduced.

LISTEN: The Links Between Chemicals and Learning Disabilities

AF: Congress just overhauled the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), which hadn’t been updated in 30 years. And it gives the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) authority to regulate new or existing chemicals. How big a deal was that legislation?

MS: Well, our regulatory system, in many ways, is fundamentally broken. The vast majority of chemicals are not proven safe before they’re put into products and emitted into the air and water. The reform of the Toxic Substances Control Act will give EPA new authority to test chemicals. It’s a step in the right direction, but it remains to be seen whether Congress will fully fund the EPA to do all this work and whether EPA will aggressively implement the new law. There are thousands of chemicals that need to be tested now—there’s a huge backlog. But the reform is not sufficient for the magnitude of the problem. Some of these chemicals that are contributing to problems with brain development and neurodevelopmental disorders are not covered under TSCA.

AF: So what’s the alternative? What are you proposing?

MS: What the TENDR experts are calling for is for chemicals where we already know they’re bad—where we don’t need any further study—those chemical should be eliminated from use. The TENDR experts are also developing specific recommendations on revising how scientific evidence is assessed and how chemicals are tested so that we do a much better job of identifying chemicals that put children at risk.

AF: The chemicals that you’re talking about are pervasive. So this is a pretty massive undertaking.

MS: It is a massive undertaking. And to some degree, we’ve dug a very deep hole for ourselves. But there are some steps in the right direction. The new TSCA law is one of those steps. Also, some of the worst organophosphate pesticides were banned from residential use, but they’re still used in agriculture. So we would like EPA to go ahead and ban those pesticides from use in agriculture. And then the next step is to ensure that the replacements are tested and shown to be safe or safer before they’re used. And there are a lot of businesses and universities where there’s great innovation happening in green chemistry. But there need to be incentives to use and develop safer chemicals so that our products are safe, especially for pregnant women and children.

AF: What can parents or consumers do?

MS: Well, we are very clear that no one can shop their way out of this problem. But there are steps that people can take to protect their families or themselves. Washing your hands; taking off your shoes when you come into the house so you’re not tracking in dust and dirt; wet-mopping and vacuuming, since so many chemicals are in household dust; eating a lot of fresh fruits and vegetables; and trying, where you can, to buy certain foods organic.

AF: And your group’s statement touches briefly on the economic and social impacts of neurodevelopmental disorders. Just how big are those impacts and why is the environmental piece so pressing for you?

MS: Well, one in six American children has a learning or developmental disability. So that’s a lot of children, and we have almost come to be accepting of those numbers. Project TENDR is saying that is unacceptable that our children are at that kind of risk. There’s such a cost, of course, to families and children. And there’s also a cost to society. The cost associated just with lead exposures is in the billions of dollars, and lead is entirely preventable. Children with learning and developmental disabilities are also more likely to end up in the juvenile justice system; and more likely to have problems forming relationships and getting jobs and staying employed. So the costs are enormous. And what we’re saying is the contribution of environmental chemicals is the part we can do something about.


Maureen Swanson is co-director of Project TENDR and director of the Learning Disabilities Association’s Healthy Children Project.