Parents of children who struggle with learning disabilities or health problems are familiar with questions that keep us awake at night. Is it genetic, congenital, dietary? Is it my parenting? It is fate? While helping our kids every day to gain new strengths we still search for the cause, hoping we’ll find lasting solutions.
Of course, learning problems have been observed in children for generations, but evidence is mounting that toxins in our highly industrial world are a contributing factor. Today, one out of every six children has a developmental disability. Many of these conditions affect the nervous system: developmental delays, learning disorders, sensory deficits, autism, and cerebral palsy.
Most of us are familiar with studies linking lead (largely from old paint dust and chips) and mercury (from coal-fired power plants, certain fish) to cognitive and behavioral problems.
We’re also aware that BPA found in plastics like food containers, toys, lining of metal cans, and beverage bottles can impair brain function in mammals, via hormone signaling in areas of the brain related to forming memories and retaining information. Choosing only eco-friendly versions of these products doesn’t remove the danger entirely. Even goods marked “BPA-free” can contain damaging chemicals. And this exposure isn’t just linked to plastics. It’s also found on store receipts! While debate continues over the effect of these chemicals on our health, it’s interesting to note that studies conducted by independent scientists show adverse effect while those financed by BPA-using industries tend to show the risk is negligible.
Some of the newest research points to cadmium as another potential culprit. This heavy metal naturally occurs in the earth’s crust, but cadmium is released through smelting, burning fossil fuel, incinerating waste, and using phosphate fertilizer—where it’s taken up by food crops such as root vegetables and grains. Cadmium exposure also comes through tobacco smoke, even some toys and jewelry. Children with high levels of cadmium in their urine were found to have more learning disabilities and special education needs. These neurocognitive problems were reported by parents in a study of 2,200 children ages 6 to 15, and more studies with data directly from schools and physicians are needed. Although we can modify our habits to limit exposure to most toxins, the presence of cadmium is largely out of individual control.
We’re also discovering that exposure to all sorts of modern-day chemicals before birth and during the formative years may be related to later learning problems. These chemicals are ubiquitous. An article in the medical journal The Lancet, titled “Developmental Neurotoxicity of Industrial Chemicals –A Silent Pandemic,” reports that half of 201 chemicals identified as neurotoxic are produced in high volume (more than 1 million pounds each year) and over 20 are often found in chemical waste.
A follow-up report by Harvard School of Public Health identifies 278 additional neurotoxic chemicals. A multi-national effort is underway to test for developmental toxicity. Experts estimate that up to a quarter of the 80,000 to 100,000 chemicals in use around the world may show neurotoxic properties.
For those of us who know the hope and hard work required to raise children who have additional burdens, such test results are only the beginning. We want action to protect the brains and bodies of every child.
Follow EPA advice and information about protecting kids from toxins in the home
Check out specifics about toxins in skin care products your children use.
Get involved in the Environmental Working Group‘s Kid-Safe Chemical Campaign
Support the Clean Air Council‘s push to reduce the emission of mercury, arsenic, and dioxin from coal-fired plants
Contact your legislators to support the Safe Chemicals Act
Use the Open Secrets database to find out how your elected officials are funded by lobbying groups.
Raising Elijah: Protecting Our Children in an Age of Environmental Crisis
Plastic-Free: How I Kicked the Plastic Habit and How You Can Too
Smart Mama’s Green Guide: Simple Steps to Reduce Your Child’s Toxic Chemical Exposure
Super Natural Home: Improve Your Health, Home, and Planet–One Room at a Time
The Newman’s Own Organics Guide to a Good Life: Simple Measures That Benefit You and the Place You Live
Slow Death by Rubber Duck: The Secret Danger of Everyday Things
Ecological Intelligence: The Hidden Impacts of What We Buy