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Industrial Chemicals Are Impairing the Brain Development of Children Worldwide

costly to both families and society. In recent decades, a gathering amount of evidence has linked industrial chemicals to NDDs. Lead, for example, was the first chemical identified as having toxic effects to early brain development, though its neurotoxicity to adults had been known for centuries.

A developing brain is much more susceptible to the toxic effects of chemicals than an adult brain. During development, the brain undergoes a highly complex series of processes at different stages. An interference—for example, from toxic substances—that disrupts those processes, can have permanent consequences. That vulnerability lasts from fetal development through infancy and childhood to adolescence. Research has shown that environmental toxicants, such as lead or mercury, at low levels of exposure can have subclinical effects—not clinically visible, but still important adverse effects, such as decreases in intelligence or changes in behavior.

Grandjean and co-author Philip J. Landrigan, Professor at Mount Sinai School of Medicine, compiled a list of 202 environmental chemicals known to be toxic to the human brain using the Hazardous Substances Data Bank of the National Library of Medicine and other data sources. (The authors note that the list should not be regarded as comprehensive; for example, the number of chemicals that can cause neurotoxicity in laboratory animal tests exceeds 1,000.)

The authors then examined the published literature on the only five substances on the list—lead, methylmercury, arsenic, PCBs and toluene—that had sufficient documentation of toxicity to the developing human brain in order to analyze how that toxicity had been first recognized and how it led to control of exposure. They found a similar pattern in how the risks of each substance were documented: first, a recognition of adult toxicity and episodes of poisoning among children, followed by a growing body of epidemiological evidence that exposure to lo
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