The World Wildlife Fund’s (WWF) biomonitoring survey in 2003 demonstrated that irrespective of where we live or what we do, we are all contaminated with a cocktail of toxic man-made chemicals. Some of these chemicals can adversely affect the brain and the peripheral nervous system. The most well-known are the ubiquitous pollutants, now banned, such as PCBs and DDT. Unfortunately, the chemical industry does not seem to have learned its lesson: there are many other man-made chemicals still being produced and used today in everyday products in the home and workplace.
A report from the World Health Organization concludes:
“Exposure (particularly prenatal exposure) to certain endocrine disrupting chemicals (e.g. PCBs) can have adverse effects on neurological development… and behaviour – delays in.cognitive development have been found to be associated with neonatal PCB exposure..”
Data suggests that these may cause learning and behavioural difficulties. In humans, the brain and nervous system are very vulnerable because development takes place over a long period. It begins early in the womb and continues through puberty. The developing brain is uniquely sensitive, and effects on brain function and coordination can occur in children at levels that would not cause permanent effects in an adult.
Unless we take action now, it may be that our children won’t be as intelligent as they might be because of man-made chemicals. Worse still, they may develop behavioural problems. Our children are our future and our future is under threat.
Sources of toxins
Most of these toxins that can affect the intelligence and behaviour of our children occur in many, sometimes surprisingly familiar places:
- INCINERATORS, POWER STATIONS AND FACTORIES – all sources of dioxins and furans.
- OLD TRANSFORMERS, PAINTS AND FRIDGES – until the 1970s, a lot of electrical components that we had in our houses contained chemicals called
polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs). These PCB’s have been found in fish and fish oils, meat and animal fats, and milk and dairy produce.
- COMPUTERS, TVs, FURNITURE, CARS AND VIDEOS – can all contain brominated flame retardant chemicals used to prevent fire starting or rapidly spreading.
- BOTTLES, CAN LININGS AND FILLINGS – many tin can linings, clear plastic re-usable water containers, baby feeding bottles and white dental fillings contain another hazardous chemical called bisphenol A (BPA). Of particular concern is the leaching from baby feeding bottles that can lead to direct exposure of very young infants. BPA also leaches into food contained in tins lined with an epoxy-resin coating.
Serious Impact on Our Children
Man-made chemicals are affecting our children’s intelligence and behaviour, compromising their ability to make sense of the world and affecting their movement skills. What are some of these specific mental health effects on our children?
EFFECT ON INTELLIGENCE AND MOTOR SKILLS
Effects on brain development associated with PCBs first came to light about 20 years ago when scientists began to see impacts on children born near Lake Michigan in North America. These children had been affected not by anything they had done, but by what their mothers had done. Their mothers had eaten fish contaminated by PCBs and this had affected the brain development of their children.
Visual Recognition and PCBs
Effects on visual recognition were seen in babies exposed to higher levels of PCBs in the womb and later tests showed that at four years of age these children did less well in short-term verbal memory tests predictive of learning ability. Studies elsewhere in the Great Lakes region backed up this data and found that PCBs were affecting children’s mental development and intelligence. When the children from around Lake Michigan were re-examined at age 11, those with higher exposure to PCBs were three times as likely to have low average IQ scores and twice as likely to be at least two years behind in reading comprehension.
Thyroid Disruption and PBDE’s
The increasing levels of these chemicals found in humans and wildlife underline the concerns regarding the reported effects on brain function and thyroid hormone action. Studies in Sweden showed that the sum of PBDE concentrations in breast milk increased 57-fold between 1972 and 1997 from 0.07 ng/g to 4.0 ng/g lipid, such that every five years the levels doubled. Levels have since declined in Sweden, but reports of work carried out at Lancaster University in the UK suggest much higher levels may be found in UK breast milk, with levels ranging from less than 1 ng/g to 69 ng/g lipid, with more than half the women having levels of 6ng/g or more.
Many pesticides have also been associated with effects on brain function and with thyroid disruption. The pesticides which are particularly under the spotlight with regard to neurotoxic effects include the organophosphates, DDT, pyrethroids and paraquat. A study in Mexico has shown startling effects in children believed to be exposed to high levels of pesticides in an area with intensive agriculture. A range of symptoms was seen, including poor hand and eye coordination, diminished memory, decreased physical stamina and decreased ability to draw a person, which is used as non-verbal measure of cognitive ability.
ALTERED MASCULINE AND FEMININE BEHAVIOUR
I was recently interviewed by a journalist here in Cyprus and towards the end of the interview she casually commented that there was a shortage of “real men” as they all seem to be feminized! It’s interesting that I have heard this comment on a number of occasions, but also for the shortage of femininity in women.
In addition to compromising children’s ability to process information, chemicals may be affecting the developing nervous system in other ways. As well as affecting intelligence, it seems that dioxins and PCBs are also tampering with the male and female behaviour patterns of children. Such effects might be due to the ability of PCBs and dioxins to disrupt the sex hormones, as both these chemicals are known to have sex hormone-disrupting properties.
Masculine and Feminine Play
The sex hormones not only influence reproduction, but also non-reproductive behaviour that shows sex differences. In Europe, researchers studying Dutch 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 masculinized play, whereas in girls, higher exposure was linked with more masculinized play. On the other hand, higher prenatal dioxin exposure was associated with more feminized play in boys as well as girls. While this work is controversial, these effects are alarming and warrant more research to verify and understand the full implications.
BPA is also known to have oestrogen (female sex hormone) mimicking properties, and as such is a hormone-disrupting chemical. In addition to effects on the uterus in animals, it is reported to cause reduced nursing behaviour, more masculinized play behaviour in females and increased aggression in males, and to abolish the sex differences in open-field behaviour.
ATTENTION DEFICIT HYPERACTIVITY DISORDER
Scientists now suspect that man-made chemicals may be contributing to a range of learning disabilities, including attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). ADHD manifests itself as several symptoms including problems with paying attention and difficulty in controlling impulsive behaviour. It has been suggested that although many factors are liable to be implicated in causing ADHD, neurotoxic chemicals may also contribute to its incidence.
This is particularly worrying because the disorder known as ADHD is estimated to affect around one in 20 children in the US, and in a significant number of individuals, some symptoms may persist into adolescence and adulthood. In Britain, prescriptions of the drug Ritalin, used to treat ADHD, increased markedly during the latter part of the 1990s.
The European Commission has registered its concern, and has warned that:
“the occurrence of developmental disabilities, such as learning disabilities, intellectual retardation and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder is certainly large enough to constitute a significant public health problem.”
Some studies suggest the involvement of chemicals. For example, response inhibition is frequently impaired in children with ADHD, and studies have shown a dose-dependent
association between PCB levels in children and an inability to prevent inappropriate behavioural responses which might be a predictor for ADHD. Brain (MRI) scans showed that children with sup-optimal development of certain areas of the brain seemed more vulnerable to the effects of PCBs. The smaller the splenium, (the back part of the bundle of fibres joining the two brain hemispheres) the larger the association between PCBs and response inhibition.
Indeed, measurable effects on the brain seem to occur with ADHD and patients with ADHD have been found to have smaller brain volumes than normal children. This gives weight to the suggestion that ADHD is a real, biologically-based phenomenon, and not just a disorder conjured up by .neurotic parents.
There is a concern that autism may be partly linked to chemical exposures, and that this developmental disorder has increased in recent years. Autism, a brain condition that is evident prior to three years of age, affects a person’s ability to form relationships and to behave normally in everyday life. There are no medical tests to determine whether a person has autism and diagnoses are based on observed behaviour. Autism is the term often used for the more severe cases, whereas the term autism spectrum disorders (ASD) includes milder forms of autism such as Asperger’s.
Studies of identical twins confirm a genetic component, and there is certainly a predisposition to autism condition in some families. Recent findings point to the possibility that the disorder spectrum is caused by a gene-environment interaction. Thus, it may be that to produce autism, it is necessary to have both susceptible genes, as well as some environmental (e.g. chemical) assault on these genes. Many chemicals have been mentioned as possibly playing a role. These include metals, some organochlorine and organobromine compounds, and some pharmaceuticals.
One suggestion is that chemicals might cause damage around the time of neural tube closure in the womb, perhaps by disrupting retinoids. Other researchers consider that differences in metabolism may be important. Mercury has been the focus of much concern, both with regard to infant exposure, due to its use as a preservative in vaccinations, and with regard to exposure in the womb, largely due to mothers eating fish contaminated with mercury, and particularly because it seems that mercury levels in the umbilical cord of newborns are higher than in their mother’s blood.
The increase in the frequency of the disorder certainly supports the suggestion of an environmental component. It seems that genetics loads the gun, but the environment pulls the trigger. Many studies have suggested that rates have risen over the years, although some reviewers caution that increased recognition of the disorder, coupled with other factors, may account for some of the increase. Nevertheless, it does appear that autism spectrum disorders are more prevalent than previously thought, and may be found in around six children per 1,000 or one in 166 children. The National Autistic Society suggests it may be nearer one in 110 children and points out that two thirds of teachers surveyed in England and Wales felt there were now more children with autism spectrum disorders than just five years ago. Translated nationally, around half a million people may suffer from autism spectrum disorders. The rates of autism itself are lower and estimated to be 16.8 per 10,000, or one in 600 children.
SAVE OUR CHILDREN
The accumulating research over the past decade or so is clearly showing that hazardous industrial chemicals dramatically affect our quality of life. We really should be fighting for our children’s rights were we can buy them toys, food and water that are safe and harmless.
In the past, many persistent and bioaccumulative chemicals, such as DDT and PCBs, have been banned too late to prevent damage. Now there is an ever more urgent need for action.
Many more persistent and bioaccumulative chemicals, which take a very long time to break down in the environment and build up in living things, are in use today. Such chemicals should be phased out, irrespective of their currently known toxicity, because it is almost impossible to predict and test for the long-term effects of low-level exposures that may take years to appear in humans and other long-lived animals. If we get it wrong, it is our children who will pay the price.
The EU is negotiating new chemical legislation to regulate industrial chemicals. This is a once in a generation opportunity to create a safer future for our children and wildlife. The World Wildlife Fund is calling for the legislation to:
- phase out chemicals that are persistent and bioaccumulative;
- phase out endocrine-disrupting chemicals;
- substitute these chemicals with safer alternatives and allow their continued use only where there is an overwhelming societal need, where no safer alternatives exist, and where measures to minimize exposure are put in place.
While the legislatures are battling this out, there are also many things that we can do directly to protect our children. We can begin buying more certified organic food which is far less toxic than food that is sprayed or fed with chemicals. We can also stop buying foods loaded with chemicals, E-factors, preservatives and colourings.
We can also help our children, and ourselves to eliminate these chemicals from our bodies. There are now natural chelators that have been tried and tested that can be used on a regular basis with no harmful effects – see www.detoxmetals.com