Damage and Death From Toxic Chemicals Are Reaching Epidemic Levels

damage from toxic chemicals

Story at-a-glance -

  • Exposure to chemical toxins affects your lungs, cognitive function, and is connected to a rising number of children affected by autism spectrum disorder and ADHD
  • Researchers calculate U.S. children have lost 41 million IQ points as a result of exposure to toxins before birth
  • Although President Trump and the new EPA administrator appear to be taking aim at what they call “wasteful regulations” that protect your air and water quality, there are steps you can take to reduce your exposure

By Dr. Mercola

You are likely aware that air pollution may affect your lungs, but did you know it has a significant effect on your brain and your cognitive functioning? These changes affect not just adults, but have also been linked to lower IQ testing, development of ADHD in children1 and an increased risk of death.

Toxins from the environment, both inside and outside, are almost impossible to avoid. Moreover, the traditional view of toxin exposure is outdated, so you'll need to consider different factors if you're attempting to reduce your exposure and susceptibility to disease and illness triggered by toxic chemicals.

Today toxins can be inhaled, applied to your skin, injected or eaten with your food. The Environmental Working Group reports the average person has 91 toxic chemicals in their body.2

Unfortunately, while exposure to some chemicals are studied, researchers have no idea how this combined toxic soup and chemical interactions affect your health.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), 25 percent of all deaths worldwide are attributable to poor environmental conditions, including air pollution. Dr. Margaret Chan, WHO Director-General, commented:3

"A healthy environment underpins a healthy population. If countries do not take actions to make environments where people live and work healthy, millions will continue to become ill and die too young."

America Has Lost 41 Million IQ Points

Reduced ability for U.S. education to compete against other countries around the world may be the result of more than the educational system.

According to Philippe Grandjean, professor of environmental health at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, and Dr. Philip Landrigan, dean for global health at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in Manhattan, rates of attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and autism spectrum disorder are rapidly increasing.4

Problems with cognitive function that are not severe enough for diagnosis are becoming even more common than neurobehavioral development disorders.

In 2012, David Bellinger, Ph.D., professor of neurology at Harvard Medical School, published a study funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) where he demonstrated a reduction in the IQ of children exposed to toxins.5

The children, born to mothers exposed to organophosphates, mercury or lead during pregnancy, suffered a loss of 16.9 million IQ points. Researchers calculated a collective loss of 41 million IQ points in the U.S. from the same exposures.6

Later Grandjean and Landrigan announced 12 substances, easily found at home, are believed to be linked to lower IQ, ADHD and autism disorder. Both Grandjean and Landrigan recommend organic foods to reduce exposure to pesticides, especially for expectant mothers. Landrigan told The Atlantic:7

"I advise pregnant women to try to eat organic because it reduces their exposure by 80 or 90 percent. These are the chemicals I really worry about in terms of American kids, the organophosphate pesticides like chlorpyrifos."

Standardized Test Scores Are Falling

In standardized testing across 73 countries, the U.S. ranked 23rd in science and reading and 39th in math.8 Some believe poor test scores are the result of averaging scores, including a large number of poor and disadvantaged students in the U.S.9

However, this does not account for the fact that only 2 percent of American students reach the highest level of math performance, while the average in other tested countries was 3 percent of students.

Former Secretary of Education Arne Duncan commented on the impact poverty may have on the educational system in the U.S., saying:10

"While our poverty rate is about 22 percent, in Vietnam [ranking significantly higher than the U.S. in science and math], the poverty rate is about 79 percent. The real educational challenge in America is not just about poor kids in poor neighborhoods.

It's about many kids, in many neighborhoods. The PISA results underscore that educational shortcomings in the U.S. are not just the problems of other people's children."

That American students are consistently outranked by other countries has a significant public health and economic impact. However, as with most social and public health challenges, there is more than one factor.

Lack of quality education, access to quality teachers, early preschools and good health are just some of the factors that play a role in educating the youth of America.

Kris Perry, executive director of the First Five Years Fund, a bipartisan advocacy group whose mission is to increase access to early childhood education for disadvantaged students, commented on the U.S. test scores, saying:11

"It is no coincidence that the countries with the strongest PISA scores also have rapidly growing economies. Global leaders recognize that in order to continue strong economic expansion, they must invest in their youngest learners.

But the U.S. trails behind almost every developed country in the world when it comes to access to high-quality preschool."

Scientists also acknowledge the impact that toxins have on the development of young children's neurological system.12 This includes cognitive development, a reduction in IQ and ADHD. In his comments, Grandjean compared the challenges with toxic chemical exposure in children to climate change:13

"We don't have the luxury to sit back and wait until science figures out what's really going on, what the mechanisms are, what the doses are, and that sort of thing.

We've seen with lead and mercury and other poisons that it takes decades. And during that time we are essentially exposing the next generation to exactly the kind of chemicals that we want to protect them from."

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How Many Children Must Die Before Responsible Decisions Are Made?

Children are suffering even greater consequences for decisions made by governmental agencies and industrial giants.

While falling IQs, plummeting test scores and increasing numbers of children suffering from ADHD and autism spectrum disorder will significantly impact the future economic health of the U.S. and other countries, it is not the ultimate price children are paying.

Untested chemicals should not be presumed safe,14 as they are contributing to the worldwide problem of environmental pollution.

The WHO finds a polluted environment, including indoor and outdoor air pollution, toxic exposure, unsafe water and second-hand smoke, kills 1.7 million children every year.15 The top five causes of death for children under 5 are related to their environment.

Chan reports only 1 in every 10 people around the world live in an area that meets WHO air quality standards.16 She commented on the susceptibility of children, saying:17

"A polluted environment is a deadly one -– particularly for young children. Their developing organs and immune systems, and smaller bodies and airways, make them especially vulnerable to dirty air and water."

A recent report from CHEMTrust, a British charity working internationally to prevent man-made chemicals from triggering damage to wildlife or humans, found current chemical testing is not adequately picking up chemicals that cause developmental neurotoxicity.18

Their "No Brainer" report19 evaluated the impact of chemicals on the development of a child's brain. The report praised the European Food Safety Authority for work on risk assessment of pesticides and recommended their approach be expanded to include chemicals from other sources.20

They also recommended chemicals used for food contact material be routinely tested and screened for developmental neurotoxicity. The report also called for a taskforce to identify and develop better ways to screen chemicals before use.

Pollution Affects Cellular Changes in Humans and Bacteria

More than four decades after the war on cancer began, science is no closer to finding a cure. Progress has been made in treating breast and colon cancers, both with relatively high diagnosis rates.21

But the rate of cancer diagnosed during childhood has continued to rise22,23 with the majority of those cancers being acute lymphocytic leukemia and cancers of the brain and nervous system.24

Although cancer is often considered a disease of old age, exposure to environmental carcinogens that occur early in life increase the risk of childhood cancer. While the latency period between exposure to toxins and the development of disease is longer for most adult onset cancers, children's developmental status place them at greater risk with shorter periods before cancer develops.25

It is evident that past efforts have been focused on the wrong factors. In 2010, President Bush's Cancer Panel made it clear that a majority of cancers occur in people with healthy genes and as a result of exposure to toxins.26 Winning the battle against cancer has less to do with understanding the triggers than it has to do with fighting large industries who have a massive financial stake in production.27

For example, the 1930s saw a significant rise in the rate of smoking, as physicians prescribed cigarettes to their patients.28 At the same time that questions arose about the health risks associated with smoking, Philip Morris Tobacco Company devised ad campaigns to protect their financial interests. It wasn't until 1964, over 30 years later, and following 7,000 research studies,29 that a warning from the Surgeon General was printed on cigarette packages.

The answers have less to do with what is known about cancer prevention and potential treatments, and more to do with affecting policy change on energy, building, food and manufacturing. You can read more about how the health of your mitochondria are affected by toxins that trigger an abnormal cell growth pattern in "How Roundup Damages Your Mitochondria and Makes You Sick."

Bacteria Affected by Air Pollution

Air pollution has an effect on bacteria that cause respiratory infections in humans, increasing the resistance to antibiotics and making them more difficult to treat and for your body to fight. Recent research evaluated the effects of exposure to black carbon that results from the burning of fossil fuels. The researchers focused on two bacteria that are the major causes of respiratory illnesses, Staphylococcus aureus and Streptococcus pneumoniae.30

They found exposure to black carbon alters the antibiotic tolerance to penicillin, increasing resistance by inducing structural and functional changes to the bacteria biofilm that allows bacteria to adhere to surfaces. Lead researcher Julie Morrissey, associate professor in microbial genetics at the University of Leicester's Department of Genetics commented:31

"This work increases our understanding of how air pollution affects human health. It shows that the bacteria which cause respiratory infections are affected by air pollution, possibly increasing the risk of infection and [ed. note: reducing] the effectiveness of antibiotic treatment of these illnesses."

Industry Profits Placed Over Public and Environmental Health

Manufacturers and industrial giants have had an influence in several sectors of the public health, including governmental agencies. At present, President Trump is planning to dismantle current policies that govern the emission of carbon dioxide and regulate water pollution.32

He already signed legislation to repeal regulations that require coal mining companies to clean the water once they're done using it, calling protection of the waterways a "wasteful regulation."33

US Air Pollution Impacted by Asia

Air quality in the U.S. is also being affected by pollution from other countries. Over the past 25 years, increasing smog (particulate pollution) on the west coast has occurred as pollution has traveled over the Pacific Ocean from China, India and several other Asian countries.34

Ozone layers have been measured over 16 national parks in the western U.S. for the past 25 years. Levels in the spring and summer months are well above normal as the pollution from eastern countries is pushed by wind and weather patterns to the western U.S. Despite a 50 percent reduction in U.S. emissions, smog levels in the western states have increased. The same increases have not been found in the Midwest and eastern states.

Researchers believe pollutants from Asia contribute at least 65 percent of the increase of ozone in the west, with much of the remainder coming from methane gas and wildfire emissions. As the Trump administration begins dismantling environmental protections, the U.S. may well begin to suffer a reduction in both air and water quality, and an increase in disease and illness attributed to pollution.

Reduce Your Toxic Load

How you react to toxins is highly individualized and dependent on several factors. These factors include:35

Level, duration and frequency of exposure

Genetic variation, including gender

Nutritional status and current diet

Health of your gut microbiome

Epigenetics, how your genes are turned on and off by environmental factors

Methylation status, or the ability of your body to detoxify, which may be impaired by lifestyle choices or genetics

There are specific choices you may make to reduce the toxic burden you and your family experience. In the following two articles you'll find strategies to keep you and your child safe from toxic chemicals. Read more at, "Warning: Your Child's Car Seat May Be Loaded With Toxic Chemicals" and "Why the U.S. Doesn't Crack Down on Toxic Chemicals."