America's chemicals testing regime is woefully inadequate and our children might be paying the price.
In February, Philippe Grandjean, of the Harvard School of Public Health, and Philip Landrigan, dean for global health at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in Manhattan, published a paper in Lancet Neurology contending chemicals in the environment are contributing to a "silent pandemic" that is eroding intelligence, disrupting behavior and damaging society.
Grandjean and Landrigan believe toxic chemicals might be the reason why we've seen recent increases in neurodevelopmental disabilities among children such as autism, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder and dyslexia.
"Children worldwide are being exposed to unrecognized toxic chemicals that are silently eroding intelligence, disrupting behaviors, truncating future achievements and damaging societies," wrote Landrigan and Grandjean.
The pervasive nature of untested chemicals in our environment is especially harmful to fetal brain development, note many researchers.
In 2006, the pair singled out six neurotoxins that are especially dangerous to developing brains, some of them you've probably heard about: methylmercury, polychlorinated biphenyls, ethanol, lead, arsenic, and toluene. In this latest study, Landrigan and Grandjean name six more to be concerned about: manganese, fluoride, chlorpyrifos, tetrachloroethylene, polybrominated diphenyl ethers, and dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane.
While use of these 12 chemicals is heavily restricted, noted James Hamblin, there are thousands of chemicals that have received scant testing and are all around us.
"Federal health officials, prominent academics, and even many leaders in the chemical industry agree that the U.S. chemical safety testing system is in dire need of modernization," wrote Hamblin in The Atlantic. "Yet parties on various sides cannot agree on the specifics of how to change the system, and two bills to modernize testing requirements are languishing in Congress."
Testing of chemicals in the United States is hit or miss -- mostly miss -- with more than 60,000 chemicals untested.
"It's surprising to learn how little evidence there is for the safety of chemicals all around us, in our walls and furniture, in our water and air," wrote Hamblin. "Many consumers assume there is a rigorous testing process before a new chemical is allowed to be a part of a consumer product. Or at least some process."
"We still don't have any kind of decent law on the books that requires that chemicals be tested for safety before they come to market," Landrigan told Hamblin.
The current law, the 1976 Toxic Substances Control Act, only requires testing for a small percentage of chemicals. Hamblin learned that an update to TSCA is highly unlikely, attacked on all sides as too stringent or not stringent enough.
"The problem is that the good people within EPA are absolutely hamstrung by the lack of strong legislation," Landrigan told Hamblin. "They can set up research centers to study chemicals and outreach and education programs, but without strong and enforceable chemical safety legislation, they cannot require industry to test new chemicals before they come to market, and they cannot do recalls of bad chemicals that are already on the market."
Critics of Landrigan and Grandjean say the pair ignore "the fundamental principle of toxicology that underpins the effects that chemicals can have on living organisms, dose-response."
So wrote Laura Plunkett for Science20.com.
"It is the dose of the chemical, and the pattern of exposure, that determines whether a chemical produces an adverse effect on an organism, not simply the presence of a chemical ..." wrote Plunkett.
Plunkett contends improvements in diagnostic methods "may account for much of the purported increase in developmental neurotoxicity" that Landrigan and Grandjean say could be due to the chemicals in our environment.
Plunkett, who has a PhD in pharmacology, has served as a consultant to the American Chemistry Council.
Despite opposition from the chemical industry and the lack of enforcement tools necessary to give the Environmental Protection Agency true regulatory authority over toxins, there are efforts underway to test all the chemicals that are in use in the United States.
Hamblin spoke with Dr. Linda Birnbaum, the director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences and the National Toxicology Program, who is overseeing Tox21, the Toxicology in the Twenty-First Century program, a new accelerated large-scale testing program of chemicals.
"Tox21 is an effort to hone technology that can effectively do rapid screening -- not of one or 10 or 20 chemicals, but of thousands at a time, recognizing threats without spending $5 million per chemical, and doing so quickly, before they make people sick or impaired," said Birnbaum.
Grandjean and Landrigan believe consumers should err on the side of caution, rather than trust an industry consultant to guide their lifestyle choices.
"We don't have the luxury to sit back and wait until science figures out what's really going on, what the mechanisms are, what the doses are, and that sort of thing," said Grandjean. "We've seen with lead and mercury and other poisons that it takes decades. And during that time we are essentially exposing the next generation to exactly the kind of chemicals that we want to protect them from."
"I advise pregnant women to try to eat organic because it reduces their exposure by 80 or 90 percent," Landrigan told The Atlantic.
We will admit, buying all organic foods is not easy, and definitely not cheap, but what is the cost to our children, our communities and society as a whole? Sooner or later we pay the price, but some things can't be measured by their worth in gold. Those things include the health and welfare of our children and an untrammeled potential to be all that they can be. We should do all that is in our power to insure they have a future that is not impaired by our addiction to chemicals.