Call to action: widespread toxic exposures contribute to developmental disorders

BRIAN LANDRY / AGGIE FILE

Scientific, medical experts come together to advocate for action, policy change

Significant scientific evidence links exposure to toxic environmental chemicals to neurodevelopmental disorders such as autism, attention deficits, hyperactivity and other learning and intellectual disabilities.

Project TENDR: Targeting Environmental Neurodevelopmental Risks, co-founded by Irva Hertz-Picciotto, the director of the UC Davis Environmental Health Sciences Core Center, issued a nationwide call to action to reduce exposures to chemicals and pollutants that contribute to neurodevelopmental disorders in children.

“By working with experts in research we can evaluate the science and work with health professional experts (like pediatricians, nurses, OBGYNs), advocates and community groups to make policy recommendations,” said Jacqueline Barkoski, a Ph.D. candidate in epidemiology at UC Davis, in an email interview.

The overall goal of the project is to increase general awareness about harmful chemicals and the lack of protective regulation. Many of the toxic chemicals can be found in our food, household cleaning and personal care products as well as in the air and water.

[The way in which chemicals are regulated is] that the public has to prove harm rather than those who put the chemicals out there having to prove safety,” Hertz-Picciotto said in an email interview.

Many chemicals and pollutants contribute to children’s learning, intellectual and behavioral impairment. They include organophosphates (OP) found in pesticides, polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDE) found in flame retardants, combustion-related air pollutants like nitrogen dioxide, lead and mercury.

Specifically, PBDEs pose a threat to children’s brain capacities that are critical for thinking and success in school.

Although these chemicals are banned in some states due to health concerns, North America still has some of the highest detected levels in the world.

In the 1970s, these chemicals were found in manufactured furniture, TVs and other electronics. The risk of exposure comes from the fact that they are not chemically bound to the plastics and foam so they come out of these products into the air and dust of the household environment.

Replacing old couches or mattresses with products that are PBDE-free is one step toward reducing exposure of the flame retardants.

“Another way to prevent exposures is through cleaning up house dust because chemicals such as PBDEs, pesticides and lead can be found in house dust,” Barkoski said. “This will also help reduce exposures to young children who crawl on the floor and have a lot of hand to mouth actions.”

This unique project brings together stakeholders to address the issue of harmful environmental toxins affecting child neurodevelopment.

The Consensus Statement of the project, published in the Environmental Health Perspectives, describes the scientific approach to validating recommendations related to harmful chemicals and calls for policy change to reduce the high prevalence of neurological disorders developing in children.

Project TENDR has numerous organizations endorsing the Consensus Statement, including the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, American Nurses Association, Child Neurology Society, National Hispanic Medical Association and Physicians for Social Responsibility.

We are also in contact with several other large organizations who are considering endorsing either our original Consensus Statement or joining onto some of our upcoming recommendations related to specific chemicals,” Hertz-Picciotto said.

Recent progress includes the American Medical Association (AMA) passing a resolution to adopt Project TENDR recommendations on lead. No level of lead exposure is safe for a developing fetus or child and is known to cause harmful brain development.

Currently more than half a million children aged 1 to 5 years have a concentration greater than 5 μg/dL.

By utilizing the most current scientific literature on the topic, scientists hope to ensure that, by 2021, no child has a blood lead level greater than 5 μg/dL and, by 2030, no child has a blood lead level greater than 1 μg /dL.

Project TENDR members advocate for better policy regulations that governments, corporations and health care institutions should adopt to lower children’s risk of developing neurological disorders.

“This project is unique because it reflects the consensus of public health professionals. It allows experts to review science carefully and also go beyond the science to policy in order to reduce exposure and protect health,” said Asa Bradman, an associate professor of environmental health sciences at UC Berkeley.

Methods to reduce exposure to harmful chemicals can be utilized in the home and work environment. Choosing fruits and vegetables that have lower level of pesticides are safer choices of produce.

In addition, choosing personal care products with absence of phthalates and lead acetates can reduce exposure. Phthalates are often found in many fragrances and lead acetates are common in many hair dye kits.

Students interested in Project TENDR and children’s environmental health can obtain further information from the Environmental Health Sciences Center at UC Davis.

“We recently started a twitter account (@ProjectTENDR) and we post updates and materials we have developed and possibly in the future there will be more direct opportunities for UCD students to get involved with Project TENDR,” Barkoski said via email.

More information about how individuals and families can reduce exposure to harmful chemicals that impact brain development can be found on the Project TENDR website.

“We still have a long way to go, but I do have the sense that the tide is turning, with editorials appearing in medical journals and voicing similar ideas as those of Project TENDR,” Hertz-Picciotto said.

 

Written by: Shivani Kamal — science@theaggie.org