What are we doing to our children’s brains?

Environmental chemicals are wreaking havoc to last a lifetime

By Elizabeth Grossman (@lizzieg1) for Ensia.

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At early stages of development — prenatally and during infancy — brain cells are easily damaged by industrial chemicals and other neurotoxicants. Photo © iStockphoto.com/Dangubic

In the past 30 to 40 years, scientists have begun to recognize that children and infants are far more vulnerable to chemical exposures than are adults.

“The brain is so extremely sensitive to external stimulation,” says Grandjean.

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Research increasingly suggests that airborne contaminants can have significant effects on early neurological development. Photo © iStockphoto.com/MCCAIG

“Pretty much everybody in the U.S. is exposed.” — Robin Whyatt

Phthalates, which are used as plasticizers — including in polyvinyl chloride plastics — and in synthetic fragrances and numerous personal care products, comprise one category of widely used chemicals that appear to have adverse impacts on brain development. Researchers at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health recently found that children exposed prenatally to elevated levels of certain phthalates had IQ scores that were, on average, between 6 and 8 points lower than children with lower prenatal exposures. Children with reduced IQ scores also appeared to have trouble with working memory, perceptional reasoning and information processing speeds.

Assuming we want to stop harming our children’s brains, how do we proceed?

Cory-Slechta’s lab is now working on replicating conditions of stress and chronic deprivation in animal models that would mirror those experienced by communities of poverty. The aim is to better understand how these effects cross the placenta and become the fetal basis of lifelong disorders. She and her colleagues are investigating, not only associations between exposures and neurodevelopment, but also the mechanisms by which effects occur.

When it comes to protecting the exquisitely sensitive developing brain, the measures currently used to assess chemical risk and set safety standards fall short.

While some sources of neurotoxicity might appear to have been adequately addressed, they have not. For example, considerable progress has been made in curtailing lead exposure through policy and public health education in the U.S. and elsewhere. However, current understanding is that virtually any amount of lead exposure can cause damage, and harmful exposures continue — especially in countries where leaded paints and gasoline are still used . And in the U.S., CDC funding for lead prevention programs was dramatically reduced in 2012.

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Ensia is a solutions-focused nonprofit media outlet reporting on our changing planet.

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