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Millions of children damaged by toxic chemicals
'Silent pandemic' alert on industrial pollution
2006 11 09


Millions of children worldwide may have suffered brain damage as a direct result of industrial pollution, scientists said yesterday.

An explosive report from American and Danish researchers talks of a "silent pandemic" of disorders caused by toxic chemicals spilling into the environment.

They include conditions such as autism, attention deficit disorder, mental retardation and cerebral palsy.

All are common and can result in lifelong disability, but their causes are largely unknown.

The scientists identified 202 industrial chemicals with the potential to damage the human brain and said they were likely to be the "tip of a very large iceberg".

More than 1,000 chemicals are known to be neurotoxic in animals and are also likely to be harmful to humans.

The researchers made an urgent call for much tighter worldwide controls on chemicals and a "precautionary approach" to testing.

Tougher regulations being introduced by the European Union do not go far enough, said the researchers. In the USA, there are only minimal requirements for companies to carry out safety test on chemicals, which are often not enforced.

One of the study's two authors, Dr Philippe Grandjean, from the Department of Environmental Medicine at the University of Southern Denmark in Winslowparken, said: "The human brain is a precious and vulnerable organ. And because optimal brain function depends on the integrity of the organ, even limited damage may have serious consequences.

"Even if substantial documentation on their toxicity is available, most chemicals are not regulated to protect the developing brain.

"Only a few substances, such as lead and mercury, are controlled with the purpose of protecting children. The 200 other chemicals that are known to be toxic to the human brain are not regulated to prevent adverse effects on the foetus or a small child."

Dr Grandjean and co-author Prof Philip Landrigan, from the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York, trawled a range of scientific data sources to compile their evidence.

Five substances for which sufficient toxicity evidence exist were examined in detail lead, methylmercury, arsenic, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), and toluene.

Pinning down the effects of industrial chemical pollution is extremely difficult because they may not produce symptoms for several years or even decades, said the scientists.

This was why the pandemic is "silent". The damage caused by individual toxic chemicals is not obviously apparent in available health statistics.

But the extent of the sub-clinical risk to large populations is illustrated by the legacy of lead. Virtually all children born in industrialised countries between 1960 and 1980 must have been exposed to lead from petrol, said the researchers.

Based on what is known about the toxic effects of lead, this may have reduced exceptional IQ scores of above 130 by more than half, and increased the number of scores less than 70.

Other results of lead exposure included shortened attention span, slowed motor co-ordination and heightened aggression.

In later life, early damage from lead can increase the risk of Parkinson's and other degenerative diseases.

Today, it is estimated that lead poisoning in children costs the US economy $43bn (22.6bn) each year.

One in six children is thought to have some kind of developmental disability, usually involving the nervous system.

Writing in the on-line version of The Lancet medical journal, the scientists conclude: "The combined evidence suggests that neurodevelopmental disorders caused by industrial chemicals has created a silent pandemic in modern society."

In the EU, 100,000 chemicals were registered for commercial use in 1981, while 80,000 are registered in the US.

Yet fewer than half had been subjected to even token laboratory testing, said the report, and in 80 per cent of cases there was no information about potential danger to children.

Although new chemicals went through more rigorous testing, access to the data could be restricted for commercial reasons.

In the EU, a new testing programme called Reach is planned under proposed legislation that will enforce tighter controls.

But the scientists say that even this does not go far enough.

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