Conservation Minnesota

Lead and Other Brain Toxins Still a Problem

This may not be something you want to think about over the July 4th weekend, but I wanted to make you aware of new statement by leading scientists and physicians on toxins and children’s brain development. An alliance of 48 of the nation’s top scientists, health professionals and health advocates agree that environmental toxins are hurting kids brains. TENDR: Targeting Environmental NeuroDevelopmental Risks The TENDR Consensus Statement.

An estimated 17% of kids have learning or behavior problems. One in ten children have ADHD and 1 in 68 have autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Talk to any teacher and he/she will tell you that they see more kids with learning and behavioral problems in their classrooms and they are dealing with more kids with severe problems. The increasing prevalence of these problems puts stress on teachers, parents, kids and the school system, as costs to educate children with learning and developmental problems are double that of kids who do not have these problems.

Many chemicals to which kids are exposed every day are implicated in learning and behavioral problems and neurodevelopmental disorders like ADHD and ASD. The chemicals with the strongest science behind them are organophosphate pesticides, brominated flame retardants, lead, mercury, PCBs, and air pollutants (polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, nitrogen oxide, particulates). There are many more chemicals with evidence of neurotoxicity. Unfortunately, most chemicals are not tested for neurodevelopmental effects, so data is lacking on many more chemicals. Of particular concern is the fact that chemicals are usually evaluated one chemical at a time, rather than real life exposure to chemical mixtures. Since many chemicals have a similar mechanism of action such as hormone disruption, it’s essential that cumulative effects of chemicals be evaluated.

The Lead Experience

Lead is a good example of a neurotoxin that just won’t quit. Most people are aware that exposure to lead can put children at risk for decreased IQ and learning and behavioral problems. But we took care of lead right? While lead is no longer in gasoline or paint and is banned in children’s toys, this brain toxin is still a concern. Lead is still found in soil especially in urban areas and 75% of houses built before 1978 likely contain lead-based paint. As we tragically learned from the Flint Michigan situation, lead may still be found in water pipes, exposing young children to this brain toxin every time they drink water or formula. Lead can also be found in pipe solder and brass faucets and fixtures. Industrial uses continue to emit lead into the environment. Lead has also been found in recycled waste tire mulch or crumb rubber now used on playgrounds and athletic fields across the country, exposing kids while they play.

Though lead is still a concern, it’s also a good example of how public health policy can address a problem. Blood lead levels in U.S. children declined significantly over the past forty years after lead was banned in gasoline and paint. CDC data for 1976-1980 show that 88.2% of children aged 1-5 had blood lead over 10 ug/dL. In 1999-2000 it was down to 2.2 %.[1] The new level of concern is 5 ug/dL and we now know that there is no safe level of lead exposure for young children. The estimated cost of lead poisoning in the U.S. is over $50 billion a year.[2] The Minnesota Department of Health estimates the cost in Minnesota alone is $1.9 billion in 2014 dollars.

Action Needed

So we know from the lead example that public health policy can work, but what more should we be doing about lead and other brain toxins? The TENDR statement is a call to action and recommends several steps to better protect children’s brain development.

  • Overhaul in our approach to assessing how chemicals affect brain development, including taking into account the unique vulnerabilities of the developing fetus and children, cumulative exposures and the lack of safety threshold for many chemicals.
  • Businesses need to eliminate neurodevelopmental toxicants from their supply chains and products.
  • Health professionals should integrate knowledge about chemical exposure into patient care and public health practice.
  • Policymakers should accelerate the clean up of past uses of lead, such as in paint and water pipes and better regulate industrial uses of lead to prevent future discharges.

State policy can support exposure reduction to lead and other brain toxins, so I’ll add a few more recommendations.

  • Create a moratorium on new uses of waste tire mulch and crumb rubber to prevent children’s exposure to lead and PAHs, both of which are neurotoxins. Also, take steps to replace these materials as the Duluth School Board is doing.
  • Require disclosure of priority chemicals in children’s products as called for in the Toxic Free Kids Act.
  • Phase out the remaining uses of toxic flame retardants in furniture and children’s products as in the Firefighter and Children Health Protection Act.

[1] Meyer PA, Pivetz T, Dignam TA, Homa DM, Schooner J, D Brody, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Surveillance for elevated blood lead levels among children – United States, 1997–2001. MMWR Surveill Summ. 2003;52:1–21.

[2] Trasande L, Liu Y. Reducing The Staggering Costs Of Environmental Disease In Children, Estimated At $76.6 Billion In 2008. Health Affairs 2011;30(5):863-870.

About Kathleen Schuler

Kathleen Schuler

Kathleen Schuler manages the Healthy Kids and Families program. With degrees in sociology and public health, Kathleen is perfectly situated to serve as the Co-Director of the Healthy Legacy coalition, which is a statewide network of advocacy organizations working to eliminate toxic chemicals from common consumer products.

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