environmental law centre

about elc law health environment

hot gossip!

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."

The problem
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 effects
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 behaviour
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.


© Environmental Law Centre
Hollibury House PO Box 267 Southport PR8 1WD UK
Tel: 0870 1657 468 Fax +44 (0)1704 549091 Email: