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Chemical exposure and developing brains: the stakes are high

Judith Robinson

Judith Robinson
Associate Director, Environmental Health Fund

Yesterday my husband and I went to visit a new preschool for our son and daughter. The whole affair reminded me of what’s wrong with chemical policy in America, but I’ll get to that in a minute.

First let me tell you that Sam and Tess’s current pre-K program is just not working out. The school can’t seem to provide them with the educational tools and environment to match their potential. So, we’re looking for a change.

At first we tried to improve the old program. We tried to raise the school’s expectations of success, to get better materials, and see if the program could work equally well for all the kids.

With two children in school we know individual children demand different things from the very same school program. This may be especially true in our family since Tess has Down syndrome and Sam does not.

Despite being more alike than different, statistics show that Tess is more vulnerable than her brother to a lot of problems — including inferior education — simply because she is diagnosed with a learning and developmental disability. So my husband and I work extra hard to make sure Tess gets equal services and protection — not just because that’s what a fair and just society should provide, but because Tess deserves it as an individual. And for the same reason we work just as hard for Sam. Basically, we are like most parents in this way.

So what does this have to do with chemical policy reform? Well, a few things but bear with me.

I’m proud to report that twelve people associated with the Learning and Developmental Disabilities community volunteered to have their bodies tested for low levels of toxic chemicals that are common to many products we can easily buy at the store. Their results are captured in Mind, Disrupted: How Toxic Chemicals May Change How We Think and Who We Are: A Biomonitoring Project with Leaders of the Learning and Developmental Disabilities Community. [pullquote]/The report shows that even people highly motivated to steer clear of chemicals associated with learning and developmental effects can’t manage to keep them out of their bodies./[/pullquote]

Scientific research into low levels of toxic chemical exposure has exploded and with it the traditionally untouchable notion that “the dose makes the poison.” What science now proves is that in some cases lower doses of toxic chemicals can cause more harm than higher doses of those chemicals. That means that very, very small amounts can make a big, permanent difference. Animal studies have already shown this and now human studies are emerging with the same news.

The Mind, Disrupted biomonitoring project illustrates the high stakes game of toxic chemical exposure for one group of people, one groups of parents. But chemical policy isn’t just failing their kids, it’s failing all kids and that raises the stakes for everyone.

Today approximately 4.5 million children have been diagnosed with Attention Deficit and Hyperactive Disorder. Sixteen percent of U.S. children have a developmental disability, and, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), one in 110 eight year olds has autism spectrum disorder. The CDC has also reported that most Americans carry around toxic chemicals in their bodies. Sometimes hundreds of them. The chemicals get into us from the air, water, soil, our food, products and place-based exposures. Some people with such body burdens have developmental disorders. Some are 10 years old some are 10 hours old. Some are pregnant. All of them harbor toxic chemicals.

This sounds more like universal exposure than equal protection.

The Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) was passed in 1976, back when the Six Million Dollar Man played on prime time network TV. This was before scientists understood the permanent health impacts from low dose chemical exposure during critical windows of development. Before the epidemic increases in learning and developmental disabilities among American children.

Ensuring TSCA reform is a top priority for many LDD groups and for my family. Specifically we want full disclosure of chemical ingredients, equal protection of vulnerable subpopulations, and a minimum set of data proving that each and every chemical in commerce passes a safety standard.

Like I said, the stakes are high.

As parents, we demand the best for our children. We tend to focus our energy on areas where we feel like we can affect change, like at our kids’ schools. But we need chemical policy not just for our kids, but for all kids now and those to come. The lesson from my kids’ old preschool is the same one here: ineffective, outdated models aren’t worth defending. They are worth replacing.

Parents need to raise their voices in a chorus demanding 21st century security from 21st century chemicals. Tell your member of Congress that the time has come to replace our broken chemical management system.

Get the facts from Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families