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6 Everyday Chemicals That Harm Your Child's Brain Development

Jul 08, 2016 06:03 AM EDT
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Do you know what's in your child's plastic toys? Chemical additives known as phthalates are often used to make products more flexible and harder to break. Phthalates and other toxic chemicals may be present in your household. Children who are exposed to these substances run the risk of impaired brain development.
(Photo : Kevin Frayer / Stringer)

Many of the chemicals present in common household items were never adequately tested for safety. Now a coalition of health experts and consumer advocates is calling for more urgent action on the issue on the part of U.S. regulators.

The group, Project TENDR (Targeting Environmental NeuroDevelopment Risks), released a consensus statement in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives. In it, they called for a new approach in which chemical additives receive scrutiny in much the same way as drugs - which need to jump a few hoops before they can win regulatory approval.

"We as a society should be able to take protective action when scientific evidence indicates a chemical is of concern, and not wait for unequivocal proof that a chemical is causing harm to our children," says the group in the statement. It names a number of chemicals that are considered harmful to healthy brain development in children, based in part on reports from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Lead - A highly toxic metal that has long been known to damage the brain and central nervous system. Even low levels of exposure to lead in children can lead to impaired intelligence growth and behavior control issues. Old buildings may still harbor lead paint and lead pipes, which can contaminate tap water.

Phthalates - Also known as plasticizers, phthalates are additives used to give plastic materials greater flexibility. These industrial chemicals can be found in many plastic bottles and containers, including food packaging. Phthalates are associated with impaired brain development in girls.

Polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs) - These flame retardant chemicals have been phased out of use in U.S. factories, but many households products that are still around contain these additives. PBDEs can be found in drapes, carpets, upholstery, furniture foam, fabrics, and plastic casings used to house TVs and computers. Prenatal exposure to PBDEs is associated with lower intelligence and increased hyperactivity.

Organophosphate pesticides (OPs) - Originally developed to be toxic nerve agents for warfare, OPs were later put to widespread use in agriculture. They have yet to be phased out of use in America; "33 million pounds were still applied in 2007 alone," reports Project TENDR. Long-term exposure to OPs has been linked to autism and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). The best way to safeguard against OP contamination in your produce may be to buy organic vegetables and fruit.

Combustion-related air pollutants - These are by-products from the burning of fossil fuels such as oil, gasoline, coal and natural gas. They comprise particulate matter, nitrogen dioxide, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), formaldehyde, benzene and many other toxic chemicals. Air pollution's effects on children's development may include impaired intelligence, mood disorders and autism.

Mercury - This highly toxic chemical can cause brain damage and intellectual impairment. It is found in all kinds of fish, although some contain higher mercury levels than others. Consumer Reports advises against consuming shark, swordfish, king mackerel, gulf tilefish, orange roughy and marlin. Young children are advised to limit their intake of tuna, and to stay away from sushi made from tuna.

Project TENDR warns against a seventh chemical as well: polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs). They were once in widespread use as coolants and lubricants in electrical equipment. In 1977, PCBs were banned in the U.S., but not eliminated - these chemicals can persist in the environment for decades. Heavy PCB exposure is associated with an increased risk of liver cancer and skin cancer.

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