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Executive Summary

schoolbusWhat do we know about the relationship between exposures to toxic chemicals and learning and developmental disabilities? In light of the significant increases in the incidence of autism, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and other learning and developmental disabilities, what role might environmental toxins play in undermining healthy development of the brain and nervous system? How might certain environmental pollutants exacerbate the health conditions of those who already have a learning, developmental, or behavioral disorder?

Twelve leaders and self-advocates from the learning and developmental disabilities community recently stepped forward to have their bodies tested for the presence of a set of chemicals that are known or suspected to be neurotoxicants, hazardous to nerve cells, or endocrine disruptors with the potential to alter normal hormone function. This report is a synthesis of the results of these tests and the experiences of the participants. It is intended to spotlight these pressing questions and prompt actions to reduce exposures that may impair how we think — and, in the most basic ways, who we are.

The Mind, Disrupted Biomonitoring Project tested for the presence of a set of synthetic chemicals and heavy metals, including bisphenol A (BPA), organochlorine pesticides, perchlorate, triclosan, perfluorinated compounds (PFCs), polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs), lead and mercury. Sixty-one distinct chemicals were detected in the participants. All participants were found to have detectable levels of BPA, mercury, lead, polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs), perfluorinated compounds (PFCs), perchlorate, and organochlorine pesticides.

This is the first biomonitoring project targeting a particular sector; namely, the learning and developmental disabilities sector. It is important to point out, however, that Mind, Disrupted did not attempt to correlate the presence or levels of chemicals with presence, type, or severity of disability. Given the current state of knowledge, no one is able to say that an exposure to a specific chemical causes a specific developmental disability.

Even so, a growing number of researchers and health professionals are concerned that some chemicals, found in everyday products, may be disrupting healthy neurological development in unintended ways and potentially intensifying the health concerns of those who already have learning and developmental disabilities.

“The overwhelming evidence shows that certain environmental exposures can contribute to lifelong learning and developmental disorders,” said Ted Schettler, MD, MPH, Science Director for the Science and Environmental Health Network (SEHN). “We should eliminate children’s exposures to substances that we know can have these impacts by implementing stronger health-based policies requiring safer alternatives. Furthermore, we must urgently examine other environmental contaminants of concern for which safety data are lacking.”

The United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) NHANES biomonitoring study indicates that most Americans carry a burden of environmental chemicals in their bodies.1 These chemical body burdens are unnecessary, preventable, and may be potentially harmful. An updated federal law could result in lowered toxic chemical body burdens, as was demonstrated by biomonitoring studies after lead was better regulated in the United States and PBDEs were banned in Sweden.

Current U.S. law regulating chemicals, known as the Toxic Substances Control Act, which passed in 1976, does not adequately safeguard the public against toxic exposure. Federal policy needs to change to reflect 21st Century science — including the importance of critical windows of development, mixtures of chemicals, and low-dose exposures — to ensure current and future generations reach their fullest potential. Federal chemicals management should be modernized to do the following:

  • Take immediate action on the worst chemicals
  • Require basic information for all chemicals in the market and for those intended to be developed and marketed
  • Protect the most vulnerable from exposure
  • Use the best scientific methods
  • Hold industry responsible for demonstrating chemical safety
  • Prioritize environmental justice
  • Enhance government coordination between agencies
  • Promote safer alternatives by implementing the principles of green chemistry
  • Ensure the "right to know" by requiring labeling of chemical ingredients in products

In summary, the financial and emotional costs of learning and developmental disabilities are already overwhelming families and communities. In the current health care crisis, we need to take every action possible to prevent and abate the growing incidence of health problems. When we have had the political will to reduce exposure to harmful substances from our environment — such as lead — we have saved billions of dollars as well as increased the quality of life of millions of individuals, families and their communities.2 We now have the opportunity to fundamentally change the federal law regulating how we develop and produce chemicals, so that the health of current and future generations is not compromised. Reducing exposures to toxic chemicals will in turn lead to a healthier population, and a reduction in health care costs.

This report captures the participants’ experience of being tested and their reflections on what this means for them personally and for society as a whole. The participants in this study — and countless others suffering from chronic disease and disability in which toxic chemicals may play a role — make it very clear that we cannot afford to wait any longer.

As Dr. Ted Schettler said in a recent article in the New York Times in reference to BPA, “When you have 92 percent of the American population exposed to a chemical, this is not one where you want to be wrong. Are we going to quibble over individual rodent studies, or are we going to act?”3

In short, the mounting scientific evidence indicates that if we do not reduce our exposure to toxic chemicals and develop safer alternatives, the already-staggering cost of learning and developmental disabilities will likely increase even more, adding millions to those already facing disabilities and unduly undermining their ability to reach their fullest potential.