How Environmental Toxins Affect Child Development

environmental toxins and child development


How Environmental Toxins Affect Child Development

Environmental toxins are present in our everyday lives - even the banned ones - and affect not only our animals and agriculture, but the health of our children as well. Toxin exposure of pregnant women and children are linked to brain development disorders, like autism, ADHD, and dyslexia. The rising rates of these disorders in children urge for more strict regulations and calls for more research into the identification of etiologic and risk factors. 

Child Vulnerability to Toxins

Neurobehavioral problems affect about 10-15% of children born today. Although genes play a big role in some of these disorders, they only make up for about 35% of cases. The realization that children are uniquely sensitive to toxic chemicals was catalyzed by a report dating back to 1993, finding that children are quantitatively and qualitatively different from adults in their sensitivity to chemicals. Before the report's publication, all environmental policies in the United States were strictly focused on the assessment of risks associated with the “average adult”, with no attention to the risks of infants, children, and pregnant women. There are multiple differences between children and adults that contribute to their sensitivity to toxins found in the environment. Immature metabolic pathways and their fragile and complex developmental processes can be easily disrupted. From when a child is in the womb to about age 6, development of voluntary movement, reasoning, perception, memory and their overall sense of self and life around them is slowly advancing. Their body weight is also a large reason why they are vulnerable to toxic chemicals. Children are disproportionately exposed to a multitude of toxic chemicals in the air, food, and water - overwhelming their neurological and developmental systems.

American children live in a world where they are routinely exposed to hundreds of chemicals in the environment around them - existing in their food, cleaning products, toys, and even their baby bottles. Even worse is that most of these synthetic chemicals have not been properly tested on the long-term effects on overall human health. A dramatic example of this is the “silent epidemic” of childhood lead poisoning. Millions of children were exposed to excessive amounts of lead from the 40s to the 70s when lead was a loosely regulated additive in food and commercial products. Many suffered from extreme lead poisoning that caused serious deficits, including lower IQ scores. After sufficient amounts of evidence showed a direct relationship to this epidemic, it became one of the most extensively researched chemicals in terms of neurodevelopment. Here are 6 more examples of environmental chemicals with strong evidence of a connection to neurodevelopmental disorders in children, according to the World Health Organization: 

Mercury - Mercury is a naturally occurring toxic metal that gets into the air and oceans primarily through industrial fumes. Affecting the neurological development of the fetus, exposure often comes from  maternal intake of fish containing high levels of mercury. 

Arsenic - Arsenic is also a naturally occurring element that is widely distributed in the Earth’s crust. When absorbed through drinking water and food, this chemical has been linked to reduced cognitive function in children, as well as neurological disease in childhood. 

Toluene - Used as a solvent in industrial feedstock, maternal exposure to Toluene has been linked to brain development problems and attention deficit in children. 

Fluoride - Fluoride is an inorganic chemical used in industrial production that is naturally present in some food and beverages. Some kinds of toothpaste contain fluoride in higher concentrations to prevent tooth decay. Higher levels of these chemicals have been linked with a massive decrease in IQ scores in children. 

Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCB) - This family of chemicals has routinely been associated with reduced cognitive function in children and infants. PCB’s are widely used as additives because of their longevity, and heatproof abilities. It is often present in many types of food and food packaging, particularly in fish products.

Bisphenol A (BPA) - BPA is an endocrine disruptor and has been shown to affect neurodevelopment in children. BPAs are used in the production of plastic and is found in many other products like bottles cans, CDs and receipt paper. 

The significant amount of evidence that shows children are uniquely vulnerable to synthetic chemicals indicates the need for a fundamental revision of US chemical policy. Creating new regulations to protect the health of children, infants, and pregnant mothers could significantly prevent dysfunction in childhood and reduce health and education costs. Avoiding these chemicals can be difficult because of they’re so prevalent in everyday life. Eating foods with high standards in sustainability, and are grown on ethical farms can make a dramatic impact on potential exposure levels. Eliminating plastics and replacing them with safer materials will also help exposure levels. Educate yourself on the chemicals you see on the food and product labels, and get your food tested through the Testsharing App for hidden pesticides and heavy metals.

Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5