Parents Beware: Your Child Is Likely Being Overexposed to Brain-Harming Chemicals

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Story at-a-glance -

  • 30 years ago, the incidence of autism was one in 10,000. Today, the incidence has climbed to one in 50
  • The dramatic rise in autism spectrum disorders is likely the result of toxic exposures from multiple sources—including the mother, while in utero
  • Recent research has identified 11 industrial chemicals that disrupt brain development and cause brain damage, neurological abnormalities, reduced IQ, and aggressiveness in children
  • These include lead, methylmercury, PCBs, arsenic, toluene, manganese, fluoride, certain pesticide ingredients, like glyphosate, and flame retardant chemicals
  • To control the pandemic of developmental neurotoxicity, the scientists propose a global prevention strategy, requiring all chemicals to be tested for developmental neurotoxicity

By Dr. Mercola

When I was in medical school, more than 30 years ago, the incidence of autism was one in 10,000.1, 2 Today, the incidence has climbed to one in 50, according to CDC statistics.3

Worse yet, some experts believe that if you consider the full range of neurological disorders that could fall under the wider umbrella of "Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)," the incidence may be as high as one in 10! It's highly unlikely that the stratospheric rise in ASD could be traced back to a single culprit.

The most logical conclusion is that this wide range of brain disorders are the result of individual responses to toxic exposures from multiple sources—including the mother, while in utero. One 2005 study4 by the Environmental Working Group (EWG) found that blood samples from newborns contained an average of 287 toxins. Of these, it's known that:

  • 180 cause cancer in humans or animals
  • 217 are toxic to your brain and nervous system
  • 208 cause birth defects or abnormal development in animal tests

Children Are Increasingly Overexposed to Brain-Harming Chemicals

In 2006, researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health and the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai identified five common chemicals that disrupt brain development and cause brain damage, neurological abnormalities, reduced IQ, and aggressiveness in children. Now, they've added six more industrial chemicals to the list,5, 6 for a total of 11. These are:

Lead (processed chocolate, gasoline, paint, toys, batteries, pipes, pottery, roofing materials, and cosmetics) Methylmercury (organic mercury found primarily in fish) Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) (fish, especially farmed fish)
Arsenic(a common contaminant in fluoride added to water supplies. Also found in wood preservatives and pesticides) Toluene (paint thinner, fingernail polish, and leather tanning) Manganese (drinking water and soy infant formula)
Fluoride (fluoridated tap water, dental products, some antibiotics and medicines, tea, processed foods, and drinks) Chlorpyrifos (an organophosphate insecticide used in pest bait containers) Dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane (DDT) (a pesticide banned in 1972 that still persists in the environment, including in the food chain)
Tetrachloroethylene (PERC)7 (dry-cleaning fabrics and metal degreasing operations) Polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs) (flame-retardant chemicals found in upholstery, mattresses, clothing, television, and computer housings)  


Children experience greater exposure to chemicals pound-for-pound than adults, and have an immature and porous blood-brain barrier, which allows greater chemical exposures to reach their developing brain. The results can be devastating.

For example, as noted in the featured study, high fluoride exposure from drinking fluoridated water can contribute to a seven-point drop in a child's IQ score, on average—and that's just ONE chemical...

"We postulate that even more neurotoxicants remain undiscovered. To control the pandemic of developmental neurotoxicity, we propose a global prevention strategy. Untested chemicals should not be presumed to be safe to brain development, and chemicals in existing use and all new chemicals must therefore be tested for developmental neurotoxicity.

To coordinate these efforts and to accelerate translation of science into prevention, we propose the urgent formation of a new international clearinghouse," the researchers write.

Beware of Toxins Found in Huggies and Pampers

As you can see from the list above, the sources of toxic chemicals are manifold, and even include products specifically designed for babies! This includes not just infant formulas, shampoos, and toys, but also diapers. A related news story8, 9 highlights test results from a 1999 study,10 which evaluated toxic emissions from three disposable diaper brands and the effect of those toxins on respiratory health. Overall, toxins found in disposable diapers include:

Dioxins (potent carcinogens) Ethylbenzene (potential carcinogen) Dipentene (eye and skin irritant)
Phthalates (potent endocrine disruptors) Styrene (harmful to the nervous system and respiratory system) Sodium polycrylate (super-absorbent gel that can contribute to diaper rash by drying out the skin)
Toluene (depresses the central nervous system) Fragrances Dyes (found to cause diaper rash,11 aka "diaper dye dermatitis." Some dyes may also contain heavy metals)


The researchers concluded that: "[S]ome types of disposable diapers emit mixtures of chemicals that are toxic to the respiratory tract. Disposable diapers should be considered as one of the factors that might cause or exacerbate asthmatic conditions."

Fortunately, there are options. Busy parents may shy away from the thought of using reusable cloth diapers at first, but as with most things, it's simply a matter of getting used to using them. Besides good old-fashioned cloth diapers, BabyGearLab12 published a review of more safety conscious brands of disposable diapers last year. Their recommendations of brands vary depending on the ingredient in question, but it can be a good resource to help you select a safer disposable diaper.

Long-Term Ramifications of Agricultural Chemicals on Human Health Are Becoming More Evident

Children aren't the only ones to suffer the ill effects of toxic overexposure. Adults are increasingly affected as well. For example, one chemical that is still persistent in our environment, DDT, has recently been implicated in the development of Alzheimer's disease, despite the fact that it was banned from agricultural use over 40 years ago!

Such findings paint a particularly grim picture of our children's future, as they are now exposed to FAR more chemicals (and more dangerous agricultural chemicals) than previous generations. Of particular concern is glyphosate, which may be even more harmful than DDT. Nearly one billion pounds of glyphosate is sprayed on food crops each year, and recent research suggests this chemical may be a driving factor behind many of the chronic diseases encountered in Western societies, including autism. The difference is that the effects of glyphosate are showing far sooner, and appear more evidently linked than in the case of DDT.

It's worth noting that genetically engineered (GE) crops are far more contaminated with glyphosate than conventional crops, courtesy of the fact that they're engineered to withstand extremely high levels of the chemical without perishing along with the weed. Glyphosate contamination is a major part of the overall hazards of GE foods, as the chemical cannot be washed off—it is incorporated into every cell of the plant.

Former US Navy staff scientist Dr. Nancy Swanson, Ph.D. has meticulously collected statistics on glyphosate usage and various diseases and conditions, including autism, the results of which are shown in the graphic below. It's hard to imagine a more perfect match-up between the rise in glyphosate usage and incidence of autism. (You can access her published articles and reports on Sustainable Pulse,13 a European website dedicated to exposing the hazards of genetically engineered foods.)

Personally, I believe we're in for a devastating shock in coming decades, as the full effects of glyphosate toxicity become evident. In my view, there's simply no time to waste when it comes to ending the reckless use of glyphosate in our food production.

Air Pollution and Food Packaging Also Linked to Health Problems

In related news, two recent articles address links between air pollution and preeclampsia, a potentially deadly complication of high blood pressure during pregnancy,14 and the detrimental health ramifications of packaged foods. According to a study published in the Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health, pregnant women exposed to certain air pollutants are at an increased risk of developing high blood pressure and preeclampsia. The pollutants in question, which include carbon monoxide from car exhaust and sulfur dioxide from industry and power plants, were found to be just as toxic to pregnant women as cigarette smoke, if not more so. According to researcher Xiaohui Xu, MD, PhD:

 "Fetal development is very sensitive to environmental factors. Hypertension (high blood pressure), in particular, is associated with increased morbidity and mortality, causing a lot of problems for the mother and fetus, including preterm delivery."

Research15 also indicates that many chemicals used in food packaging are toxic, and affect anyone who consumes foods that have come into direct contact with such packaging.  As the authors note, the chemicals used in food packaging are not inert, and they can migrate or leach into the food. Worse yet, there are over 4,000 such chemicals in use! Among the better known toxicants are:

  • Formaldehyde
  • Bisphenol-A (BPA)
  • Tributyltin
  • Triclosan
  • Phthalates

This is quite disturbing, considering the fact that about 90 percent of the money Americans spend on food is spent on processed foods.16 As reported by Medical News Today:17

"Although some of these chemicals are regulated, people come into contact with them almost every day through packaged or processed foods. The authors of the commentary note that exposure is low, but it is chronic, as many of us eat such foods throughout our lives. Food contact materials (FCMs) are usually made of plastic or contain a synthetic material that is in direct contact with foods. This includes coating, laminate in beverage cartons or the closures of glass jars.

Too little is known about the long-term impact of chronic exposure to these FCMs, say the authors, who add: 'These facts may be of relevance to scientists interested in the developmental origins of health and disease hypothesis (DOHaD), life-course effects of in utero and childhood environmental exposures, plasticity, epigenetics and related processes.'"

How to Reduce Unnecessary Chemical Exposure to Your Family

Rather than compile an endless list of what you should avoid, it's far easier to focus on what you should do to lead a healthy lifestyle with as minimal a chemical exposure as possible:

  • As much as possible, buy and eat organic produce and free-range, organic foods to reduce your exposure to agricultural chemicals.
  • Rather than eating conventional or farm-raised fish, which are often heavily contaminated with PCBs and mercury, supplement with a high-quality purified krill oil, or eat fish that is wild-caught and lab tested for purity.
  • Eat mostly raw, fresh foods, steering clear of processed, prepackaged foods of all kinds. This way you automatically avoid artificial food additives, including dangerous artificial sweeteners, food coloring, and MSG.
  • Store your food and beverages in glass rather than plastic, and avoid using plastic wrap and canned foods (which are often lined with BPA-containing liners).
  • Have your tap water tested and, if contaminants are found, install an appropriate water filter on all your faucets (even those in your shower or bath).
  • Only use natural cleaning products in your home.
  • Switch over to natural brands of toiletries such as shampoo, toothpaste, antiperspirants, and cosmetics. The Environmental Working Group has a great database18 to help you find personal care products that are free of phthalates and other potentially dangerous chemicals. I also offer one of the highest quality organic skin care lines, shampoo and conditioner, and body butter that are completely natural and safe.
  • Avoid using artificial air fresheners, dryer sheets, fabric softeners, or other synthetic fragrances.
  • Replace your non-stick pots and pans with ceramic or glass cookware.
  • When redoing your home, look for "green," toxin-free alternatives in lieu of regular paint and vinyl floor coverings.
  • Replace your vinyl shower curtain with one made of fabric or install a glass shower door. Most all flexible plastics, like shower curtains, contain dangerous plasticizers like phthalates.
  • Limit your use of drugs (prescription and over-the-counter) as much as possible. Drugs are chemicals too, and they will leave residues and accumulate in your body over time.
  • Avoid spraying pesticides around your home or insect repellants that contain DEET on your body. There are safe, effective, and natural alternatives out there.

Limiting Chemical Exposure Is Important for Optimal Health

It is important to make these positive and gradual steps toward decreasing your chemical risk through healthy lifestyle choices. While you make the switch to remove and reduce chemicals around your home, remember that one of the ways to significantly reduce your toxic load is to pay careful attention to what you eat. Organically-grown, biodynamic whole foods are really the key to success here, and, as an added bonus, when you eat right, you're also optimizing your body's natural detoxification system, which can help eliminate toxins your body encounters from other sources.

Environmental pollution is a massive problem, but for most there aren't many immediate solutions to address it. Your time is better spent focusing on your immediate environment; your home, and all the products you use or come in contact with on a daily basis. Cleaning that up can go a long way to reduce your and your child's toxic load, and hence decrease your risk of chemical-induced health problems.

The costs of inaction and not regulating and removing these pernicious toxins from our lives will have tremendous, long-lasting, deleterious, health, environmental, and economic costs. For more detailed reports, you can review two comprehensive PDFs on the topic:

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