Call to Target Common Chemical Dangers to Kids' Brain Development

Scientists and kids' health advocates call for renewed attention

toxic chemicals environment - bowl of raspberries on child's lap
Lecia Wolf Phinney/Getty Images

Do you know which of the common chemicals we're constantly exposed to have been shown to pose a risk to kids' brain development? In a July 2016 report, dozens of scientists, health practitioners, and children's health advocates called for renewed attention to the mounting evidence that many common chemicals we use every day may be linked to neurodevelopmental disorders such as autism spectrum disorder, attention deficits, hyperactivity, intellectual disability, and learning disorders.

Project TENDR, a coalition of scientists, health professionals and children’s and environmental advocates that works to raise awareness about environmental chemicals that are linked to neurodevelopmental risks in children, released the report, "Project TENDR: Targeting Environmental NeuroDevelopment Risks," to highlight the widely-used chemicals that have been shown to endanger healthy brain development in fetuses and children of all ages.

What Parents Need to Know About These Common Chemicals

The chemicals that parents should be worried about have been shown to be in our air and water as well as in the many products we commonly use on our bodies and in our homes. According to Project TENDR, some chemicals are so prevalent in our environment that they have been detected in the bodies of nearly all Americans in tests conducted by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Most of the many chemicals found in industrial and consumer products undergo almost no testing for developmental neurotoxicity or other effects on health, despite the fact that people—including pregnant women and children, who are the most vulnerable to potentially harmful chemicals—are exposed to them regularly.

Most concerning to scientists are chemicals such as lead, mercury, organophosphate pesticides (which are commonly found in products used in home gardening as well as in farming), phthalates (common in plastics, personal care products, and pharmaceuticals), polybrominated diphenyl ethers (flame retardants), and air pollutants produced when wood and fossil fuels are burned. Even chemicals that were banned long ago, such as PCBs, or polychlorinated biphenyls, which were outlawed in 1977, continue to persist in the environment, posing a health risk.

The Project TENDR report calls for an overhaul of the current federal system of screening dangerous or harmful chemicals, which often allows chemical manufacturers to simply substitute similar chemicals—that pose similar dangers—when a chemical is flagged as being toxic. It also takes regulatory agencies years or decades of review before they deem a chemical harmful. The authors of the report urge legislators to establish better methods to develop and assess chemicals that may harm kids' brain development and to accelerate the clean up of lingering toxins. They also call upon chemical manufacturers to eliminate neurodevelopmental toxins from their products.

What Parents Can Do to Minimize Kids' Exposure to Toxins

  • Read up on the latest information on research about environmental toxins and learn about what efforts are being made to protect families; Project TENDR and the Environmental Working Group (EWG) are great sources of information. Also, go to the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency)'s info page on integrated pest management to read about environmentally-friendly approaches to controlling pests, and read about the Frank R. Lautenberg Chemical Safety for the 21st Century Act, a new law that strengthens protection for families.
  • Read before you buy. EWG also features a database of personal care products called Skin Deep, which lists ingredients of many consumer products and ranks the toxicity and adverse effects; parents can use this database to make informed choices about the products they use every day.
  • Steer clear of the "dirty dozen" produce (fruits and veggies that have high amounts of pesticides) and choose fruits and vegetables that are known to contain lower levels of pesticides (the so-called "clean fifteen"). EWG provides annual lists.
  • When buying seafood, choose varieties that are high in omega 3's but contain low amounts of mercury such as wild salmon, sardines, Atlantic mackerel, and rainbow trout. You can also search seafood safety ratings for specific fish on Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch site.
  • Test your water to make sure it is free of lead with kits from Healthy Babies Bright Futures, a group of scientists, nonprofit organizations, and donors that are working to create and support efforts to reduce exposures to neurotoxic chemicals in the first thousand days of a baby's development. Make sure the paint in your home does not contain lead (homes built before 1978 may have lead-based paint).
  • When buying furniture, look for products that are labeled as being free of toxic flame retardants.
  • Do not use vinyl flooring, which contributes to phthalates building up in house dust, and do not buy plastic toys or other products made of PVC.
  • Take off your shoes before coming into the house to keep dirt outside and reduce risk to lead and pesticides. Use a vacuum with a HEPA filter and dust with microfiber cloths to prevent a buildup of dirt and reduce exposure to phthalates.
  • Consider using non-toxic alternatives to pesticides, which can be harmful to children and pets.
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