Children's brain development
affected by chemicals
Wednesday 2 June 2004
"We are all living in a global chemical experiment of which
we don't know the outcome."
The brain development of many children in Europe
today has been harmed by man-made chemicals. Details of studies
showing that chemicals are seriously impacting on children's intelligence
are highlighted by WWF.
The new report, Compromising our Children, brings
together the latest research on the impacts of man-made chemicals
to which we are all exposed. Disturbingly it reveals that the chemical
levels found in some members of the general public are sufficient
to harm children's brain development and coordination.
Gwynne Lyons, WWF Toxics advisor, said:
"It seems unbelievable that although science has shown that
chemicals are affecting children's mental abilities and their ability
to make sense of their world, we are still missing vital safety
data on most chemicals in use today. And even when studies suggest
some chemicals can affect brain development, swift action is not
taken. In effect we are all living in a global chemical experiment
of which we don't know the outcome. Our children are our future
- and our future is under threat."
Very little is known about the toxicity to the brain and the nervous
system of the 70,000 man-made chemicals currently on the market.
However, a panel of scientists in the USA have estimated that 10
per cent of all neurobehavioural disorders are caused wholly or
partly by toxic exposures. Exposure to some chemicals, could therefore
account for a wide variety of cases of behavioural and mental problems
currently classified as due to unknown causes.
The developing brain is particularly sensitive, because
in humans the brain and nervous system develop over a long period
of time, beginning in the womb and continuing through puberty. This
means children are particularly vulnerable to the effects of chemicals
that can derail normal brain development and function.
Studies have shown that brain development in children
living in industrialised European countries has been affected by
chemicals that have accumulated in their mothers and are passed
on from the mother while the baby is in the womb.
Studies on children in the Netherlands and Germany
have confirmed fears that in European cities widespread harm appears
to have been caused to some children simply by PCB chemicals found
at the upper range of those 'normally' found in the general population.
The levels found in mothers from the UK have not been dissimilar
to these levels that have been shown to cause effects.
We are exposed to chemicals that are reported to cause
neurotoxic effects in our diet and in our everyday lives. Included
in the report are examples such as; brominated flame retardant chemicals
that may be found in videos, TVs, computers, soft furnishings, car
seats, and furniture; PCBs which can arise from old industrial transformers,
and some building materials; and dioxins, emitted by power station
and some factories, and open burning of some plastic wastes.
The report shows that in the EU, the impacts of chemicals on children's
brain development include: poorer memory; reduced visual recognition;
less well developed movement skills; as well as lower IQ scores.
It has been calculated that the loss of one IQ point
can be associated with a reduction in lifetime earnings of 2.39
per cent, but the long term implications of the effects seen in
children are not known.
In addition, disabilities such as Attention Deficit
Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and autism appear to be increasing,
and concern is growing about the role chemicals may play in these
disorders. The European Commission now regards the occurrence of
developmental and learning disabilities as a 'significant public
health problem'. Yet most chemicals on the market today lack available
safety information, particularly about their ability to cause developmental
toxicity - where toxics affect the developing offspring, but the
same dose levels would not cause effects in mothers - or birth defects.
Altered masculine and feminine
Other impacts the report brings to light are more subtle but equally
alarming, such as altered masculine and feminine behaviour.
Researchers in Europe studying children exposed to
background levels of pollution found that the effects of prenatal
exposure to PCBs were different for boys and girls. In boys, higher
prenatal PCB levels were related to less masculinised play, whereas
in girls, higher exposure was linked with more masculinised play.
On the other hand, higher prenatal dioxin exposure
was associated with more feminised play in girls as well as boys.
While this work is controversial it warrants more research to verify
and understand the full implications.
A call for legislation
"Hazardous chemicals can take a hidden toll on our quality
of life. Children and wildlife have a right not to be contaminated.
And parents have a right to expect that products that are used in
the home are as safe as possible. But even where there are safer
alternatives, legislation to phase out the worst chemicals is lacking,"
said Gwynne Lyons.
"There are great emotional costs to the families
of children with impaired brain function, as well as societal costs,
in terms of schooling and healthcare provision. But these costs
are rarely factored in to decisions on chemicals legislation."
The EU is negotiating new legislation (called REACH)
to regulate industrial chemicals. This is a once in a generation
opportunity to create a safer future for our children and wildlife.
WWF is calling for the legislation to phase out chemicals
that are persistent and bioaccumulative, or those that can disrupt
the endocrine system and allow their continued use only where there
is an overwhelming societal need, where no safer alternatives exist,
and where measures to minimise exposure are put in place. WWF therefore
consider that the availability of a safer substitute should be grounds,
by itself, for banning such chemicals of very high concern.