Industrial Chemicals + Children's Brains = Impaired Learning

"The combined evidence suggests that neurodevelopmental disorders caused by industrial chemicals have created a silent pandemic in modern society.”
(Excerpt from a 2006 paper in The Lancet medical journal, cited in Steingraber's article "Mind Games")

A few days ago, via MightyNest's blog, I came across the article "Mind Games: How toxic chemicals are impairing children’s ability to learn" by ecologist and cancer-survivor Sandra Steingraber in Orion magazine.  This sobering article discusses the enormous costs of toxic chemicals on our children's brains, including documentation of the ever-increasing prevalence of cognitive and psychomotor disabilities (e.g., autism, ADHD) in children. 

Those who argue that abolition for organophosphates [a common type of industrial chemical] is unrealistic need to explain how realistic it is to run a high-quality public school system when more than 9 percent of children can’t pay attention and one dollar of every four must be directed to special educational services.  
Steingraber convincingly makes the point that we cannot as parents protect our children from all the toxic chemicals in the environment.  Instead, we need regulation to prevent them from being released into the marketplace in the first place. In reading Steingraber's account of the fight to remove lead from paint and gasoline, I was struck by how little things have changed in the past decades.

Steingraber explains how she came across a passage on lead poisoning in the 1936 medical text Holt’s Diseases of Infancy and Childhood.  The passage states that prevention of lead poisoning is key (since treatment is ineffective) and recommends that physicians warn parents about the dangers of children putting non-food items in their mouths.  Although physicians knew in the 1930s that lead could maim children's brains, it was not until forty years later that lead was removed from paint, and sixty years later that it was removed from gasoline.  These public health accomplishments, which have resulted in a dramatic drop in levels of lead in children's blood and an accompanying decrease in the percentage of children with mental retardation, were "carried out over the objections, threats, denials, and obfuscations of the lead industry."

In the absence of meaningful chemical regulation, parents 
are expected to somehow protect their children from hundreds 
of neurotoxicants circulating throughout the environment.  
Steingraber argues that this approach is ineffective.

She draws a striking comparison to our current approach to preventing children from exposure to neurological poisons, such as organophosphate pesticides. 
The release of this study [connecting organophosphate pesticide exposure to ADHD in children] in spring 2010 triggered intense media coverage and lots of advice-giving to concerned parents. Wash fruits and vegetables well. Opt for organically grown food. Eschew pesticidal lawn chemicals. Avoid organophosphate pesticides when attempting to control insect pests within the home or on the family pet. With these admonitions, I felt I was back in 1936 with Dr. Holt: to prevent lead poisoning, tell parents to stop children from putting things in their mouths. 
This sort of public health approach — surround kids with brain poisons and enlist mothers and fathers to serve as security detail—is surely as failure-prone with pesticides as it was with lead paint.
Organophosphate pesticides, which are neurological poisons, 
are sprayed on fields of crops all over America.

Steinberger's article concludes:
As parents, we can only do so much to protect our children from the brain-disrupting chemicals that lurk in every part of the Earth’s dynamic systems— its water cycles, air currents, and food chains. . .
So don’t give me any more shopping tips or lists of products to avoid. Don’t put neurotoxicants in my furniture and my food and then instruct me to keep my children from breathing or eating them. Instead, give me federal regulations that assess chemicals for their ability to alter brain development and function before they are allowed access to the marketplace. Give me a functioning developmental neurotoxicant screening program, with validated protocols. Give me chemical reform based on precautionary principles.

If you have the chance, I highly recommend reading Steingraber's article in its entirety.  Or you can check your local library for Steingraber's recently published book Raising Elijah, from which the Orion article is adapted.

What can you do? 
Join the movement to protect our families from toxic chemicals.  Sign up with Safer Chemicals Healthy Families, a coalition of "parents, health professionals, advocates for people with learning and developmental disabilities, reproductive health advocates, environmentalists and businesses from across the nation."  Join their email mailing list and when they send you information about an opportunity to sign an electronic petition or email your representatives, do it.  It only takes a moment, but adds your voice to a growing chorus calling for chemical regulation reform.

For more green activism opportunities, check out my Take Action page.


  1. Great post. In theory, I like the idea of small government, but in many cases we simply cannot rely on "the market" to self-regulate - it just won't as long as there is money to be made in the short term. This is a perfect example of an industry that requires regulation.

  2. You might find this brief article interesting.

    It talks about the strengths and weaknesses of the studies showing relationship between ADHD and chemicals and gives suggestions on how to proceed. I am sure you won't agree with the last bullet point (don't know that I would either), but I think the author does make some interesting points.

    I found this quite interesting: "None of these manmade chemicals were used a century ago." [ADHD was recognized as a distinct phenomenon as early as 1902 - Russell Barkley, PhD, Taking Charge of ADHD] "Therefore the question arises whether they might explain part of the increase in ADHD diagnoses of the past forty years. The widely documented genetic risk could be a genetic vulnerability to such chemicals." The author then adds, "However, before jumping to such conclusions, some limitations of the studies must be considered." Read the article to read about these limitations.

    This is a link to the most recent articles related to organophosphate pesticide on the CHADD website.

    I will definitely want to take precautions. I am, however, a little hesitant to get swept up in too much hype as this is not the first nor the last things to be blamed for causing ADHD (just like Type 1 diabetes with which I have been dealing for many more years and seen many "causes" come and go).

    I would enthusiastically support further research on this subject! In the meantime, I better do a better job washing my produce. Thanks for the interesting post. It got my juices flowing this morning and opened my eyes to an important topic!

  3. Thanks, Kitty. The free market only works well if information is readily available and everything is perfectly transparent. Obviously, that is not the case here. We definitely need regulation!

  4. Natalie, Excellent points. I know there are skeptics. I thought of discussing this in my post, but left it out. Everyone wants to blame their favorite villain (c-sections, air conditioners, not enough time in nature, vaccines, chemicals, not enough snuggling with your kids, etc.) for the increasing rates of all kinds of problems: ADHD, autism, diabetes, allergies, asthma, and so on. I personally think industrial chemicals are one of the most likely culprits, because we know they are in our bodies (infants are born with over 200 industrial chemicals in their bodies), they are NOT natural and we have not evolved to deal with them, and we know they mimic hormones, etc. and can interfere with natural processes. I'm sure it's a complicated interaction of many things, but I've seen the most science for the chemicals.


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