More than 200 industrial chemicals are known to be hazardous to the human brain, yet they're not regulated, even to protect children, according to new research. Prenatal and early—childhood exposure to such chemicals—neurotoxins—is responsible for a silent pandemic of neurodevelopmental disorders, possibly including autism, attention deficit disorder and retardation, says Philippe Grandjean, M.D., an adjunct professor of environmental health at the Harvard School of Public Health in Boston and the lead author of a recent study of chemical neurotoxicity published in the British medical journal Lancet.
"The experience with lead, mercury and a few other industrial chemicals shows that toxic effects on the brain occur at much lower doses during brain development and that those effects are likely to be more widespread and permanent," Grandjean warns. One out of every six children has a developmental disability, usually involving the nervous system, he adds. Research shows that environmental toxins, even at low levels, can have small but important adverse effects, such as decreases in intelligence or changes in behavior.
However, enacting protections—such as the removal of lead from gasoline, which wasn't complete until the 1990s—involves decades of research and debate. "Meanwhile, pregnant women and small children may be exposed to levels of toxicants we later regret," Grandjean says. "We need to change this pattern."
In an effort to reduce chemical—related diseases, the European Union (EU) adopted a policy last December that requires manufacturers to register and test chemicals. The goal is to make more information available about substances in everyday products and eventually replace dangerous chemicals with safer alternatives, say EU officials.
Such sweeping reform will be harder to achieve in the United States, according to Grandjean. "U.S. officials have objected to such regulations because of expenses to the industry," he says. "I think we all need to send a message to decision makers that the expenses paid by children, who have lost IQ points or who suffer other brain deficits because of unwanted chemical exposures, are much greater than the costs of prevention."
Until more regulations are put in place, you can reduce your family's exposure to chemicals by choosing organic foods and products whenever possible, though even some of these may still contain trace amounts of contaminants.
For information on how to share concerns with your local lawmakers via email, phone or mail, visit congress.org and enter your ZIP code. For a comprehensive list of potentially dangerous chemicals and products to avoid during pregnancy and breastfeeding, as well as suggestions for safer alternatives, go to fitpregnancy.com/chemicals.