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Unprecedented Alliance Agrees Toxic Chemicals Are Hurting Brain Development

An unprecedented alliance of leading scientists, health professionals, and children’s health advocates, including SEHN’s Science Director, Ted Schettler, has come together to publish a consensus statement concluding that scientific evidence supports a causal link between exposures to toxic chemicals in food, air and everyday products and children’s risks for neurodevelopmental disorders.  The alliance, known as Project TENDR, is calling for immediate action to significantly reduce exposures to toxic chemicals to protect brain development for today's and tomorrow's children. Neurodevelopmental disorders include intellectual disability, autism spectrum disorder, attention deficits, hyperactivity, other maladaptive behaviors, and learning disabilities.  The consensus statement is available on the Project TENDR website.

The alliance concentrated primarily on examples of chemicals and pollutants for which the causal contribution to children’s learning, intellectual and behavioral impairment is clear and unequivocal. They include:

  •   Organophosphate (OP) pesticides
  •   Polybrominated diphenyl ether (PBDE) flame retardants
  •   Combustion-related air pollutants, which generally include polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), nitrogen dioxide and particulate matter
  •   Lead
  •   Mercury
  •   Polychlorinated Biphenyls (PCBs)

The effort was led by TENDR co-directors Irva Hertz-Picciotto, environmental epidemiologist at UC Davis, and Maureen Swanson, with the Learning Disabilities Association of America. They assembled a team of scientists who extensively scoured the published literature to identify candidate chemicals and pollutants for which the evidence of neurodevelopmental impacts is strongest. The broader alliance then developed the consensus statement over more than a year of intensive work.

This initial effort was not intended to address a longer list of candidate chemicals for which existing evidence is highly concerning but not yet firmly established. Beyond that the alliance recognizes that a list of chemicals and pollutants known or suspected to have adverse neurodevelopmental impacts is probably the tip of the iceberg. Thousands of chemicals to which people are exposed have not undergone any evaluation of their impacts on the developing brain. The statement underscores the urgent need for a better approach to developing and accessing scientific evidence and using it to make decisions.

According to Irva Hertz-Picciotto, “This is truly an historic agreement. Ten years ago, this consensus wouldn’t have been possible, but the scientific research is now abundantly clear: toxic chemicals are harming our children’s brain development. As a society, we can eliminate or significantly lower these toxic chemical exposures and address inadequate regulatory systems that have allowed their proliferation. These steps can, in turn, reduce high rates of neurodevelopmental disorders.”

Maureen Swanson added, "This national problem is so pressing that the TENDR scientists and health professionals will continue their collaboration to develop and issue recommendations aimed at significantly reducing exposures to toxic chemicals that are harming children’s brain development. Calling for further study is no longer a sufficient response to this threat."

See Project TENDR’s recommendations for steps that individuals can take to protect themselves and their families from the worst of these exposures.