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Sounding alarms about chemicals and children

Children are more vulnerable to the slightest amounts of chemicals in the environment than their parents. The same dust on the floor, laced with particles of lead from the 1925 paint that flaked off a house next door, will be inhaled by a child's nose just two or three feet above the carpet. A parent in the same room, who spends more time with her nose higher, may inhale a fraction of that same dust.

As an increasing number of learning disabilities appear in the nation's children, many researchers are investigating the possibility that some of these result from damage to the growing brain, whether to the fetus because of the mother's exposure to toxins, or to the young child directly. In the past, most research has focused on large exposures to toxic substances in adults, and not on tiny incremental exposures in children.

"We treat chemicals in America as if they were innocent until proven guilty," national expert Bernard Weiss, PhD., told a Seattle audience during a lecture in late January organized by the Freeland, Wash.-based Institute for Children's Environmental Health. "In Europe, they treat chemicals as guilty until the manufacturer can prove them innocent." An estimated 1,500 new chemicals enter industrial use in America every year, Weiss added.

He listed studies that show lead, mercury, industrial chemicals and certain pesticides cross the placenta of a pregnant woman and can cause learning and behavioral disabilities for her child. Yet, in spite of mounds of data showing harm, the public seems to lack the political will to change regulations, he added.

A professor of environmental medicine at the University of Rochester School of Medicine and Dentistry, Weiss has vast experience in toxicology and the developing brain. While the evidence exists for dramatic decreases in intelligence measured by an IQ test when there is a large toxic exposure, he explained, it is more difficult to measure slight changes that may be occurring at smaller exposures.

According to Weiss, research shows that damage continues even at these lower levels. One vivid example he gave was a study on pesticide-exposed children in Mexico. Drawings of people done by children of the same ages were shown side by side. The pesticide-exposed children drew primitively in comparison to their peers who lived far from the sprayed fields, according to the research of Elizabeth Guillette, PhD.

Following Weiss' lecture, there was a lively question-and-answer session that included a local researcher, Steve Gilbert, PhD, DABT. Gilbert is director of the Institute of Neurotoxicology and Neurological Disorders in Seattle. More than one person in the audience asked: What could anyone do about all this data showing dangers?

In answering, Gilbert described his own journey from being a somewhat detached academic dedicated to understanding the mechanisms of harm toward greater public advocacy.

"Write your legislators. Organize meetings. Support advocacy organizations," he told the audience. Many in Seattle have been raising their voices about lead exposure in the drinking water at public schools in the Seattle district. A lengthy public debate ended with the School Board adopting new lower standards for permissible levels of lead in the water.

Yet, even lower levels may not be safe, Weiss pointed out. After reviewing research data on lead exposure, intelligence and behavioral disorders, "there is no safe level of exposure," he told the audience. According to Weiss, behavioral disorders are just as clearly linked to lead exposure as deficits in IQ. He showed evidence of increased aggression and attention problems in 12-year-old boys with higher lead exposure than their peers.

One promising note was sounded by Elise Miller, director of the Institute for Children's Environmental Health, who said that many environmental groups were hopeful that new bills proposed in the 2005 Washington State Legislature would tighten restrictions on lead and flame-retardant chemicals, known as PBDEs.

Sally James is a Seattle freelance writer and mother of three teenagers.

For more information:
  • www.iceh.org - Includes a list of the "Top 10 things you can do practice prevention," as well as a 33-page recent report on Washington state's health, "Health and Environmental Contaminants," by Katie Davies, PhD, a health researcher and faculty member at Antioch University Seattle.
  • www.igc.org/psr - Provides more information on the study of pesticide exposure in Mexico. See "In Harm's Way: Toxic threats to child development," published by the Greater Boston Physicians for Social Responsibility.
  • www.checnet.org - Children's Health Environmental Coalition

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