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Harvard Study Links Chemicals, Neurodevelopmental Disabilities


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A new study is linking the pesticides chlorpyrifos and DDT and other chemicals to a rise in cases of neurodevelopmental disabilities. (Shutterstock)

A new study is linking the pesticides chlorpyrifos and DDT and other chemicals to a rise in cases of neurodevelopmental disabilities. (Shutterstock)

Toxic chemicals may be responsible for a growing number of children with autism and other neurodevelopmental disabilities, researchers say.

In a report published online Saturday in the journal Lancet Neurology, researchers from the Harvard School of Public Health and the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai are warning of what they call a “silent pandemic” resulting from limited regulation of chemicals.

Exposure to toxic substances could be triggering an increasing number of cases of autism, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, dyslexia and other conditions, they say.

“The greatest concern is the large numbers of children who are affected by toxic damage to brain development in the absence of a formal diagnosis. They suffer reduced attention span, delayed development and poor school performance. Industrial chemicals are now emerging as likely causes,” said Philippe Grandjean of the Harvard School of Public Health.

The review is an update to one the researchers first published in 2006 which singled out five chemicals — lead, methylmercury, arsenic, polychlorinated biphenyls and toluene — as ones that can cause brain deficits.

The current report, which is based on a review of previously published studies, adds six other chemicals to the list: manganese, fluoride, the pesticides chlorpyrifos and DDT, a solvent often used in dry cleaning called tetrachloroethylene and the flame retardants polybrominated diphenyl ethers.

Specifically, the researchers said that manganese is linked to diminished intellectual functioning and impaired motor skills while solvents like tetrachloroethylene can bring about hyperactivity and aggression and pesticides contribute to cognitive delays.

The developing brain is especially vulnerable to such chemicals during pregnancy, the researchers said.

“The problem is international in scope, and the solution must therefore also be international,” Grandjean said. “We have the methods in place to test industrial chemicals for harmful effects on children’s brain development — now is the time to make that testing mandatory.”

The chemical industry, however, refuted the findings from Grandjean and his colleague, Philip Landrigan of Mount Sinai. In a statement, the American Chemistry Council called the pair’s conclusions “flawed.”

“What is most concerning is that the authors focus largely on chemicals and heavy metals that are well understood to be inappropriate for children’s exposure, are highly regulated and/or are restricted or being phased out. They then extrapolate that similar conclusions should be applied to chemicals that are more widely used in consumer products without evidence to support their claims. Such assertions do nothing to advance true scientific understanding and only create confusion and alarm,” the council said.

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Comments (4 Responses)

  1. Yankeegirl says:

    The bottom line is our kids are being poisoned. Glad this is being validated by Harvard scientists because noone seems to be listening to the parents. Poisoning- as awful as that sounds now we can talk about it openly without being attacked for saying it. I’ve long thought this was the case because there is no way genetics alone can explain the enormous increase that has happened over the last 20 years or reports of autism clusters in MN and CA. This has all the features of poisoning on a mass scale. 1 in 88 American children with a lifelong disability is not normal. I hope EPA, NIEHS, CDC, APA, NIMH, FDA, DoD and even the President and others are paying close attention!

  2. Sue Keller says:

    So Big Pharm is throwing Big Farm under the bus on this one? Battle of the Big Businesses? Hmm, if everyone’s guilty than no one’s guilty, I guess.

  3. autismUXB says:

    There should be no surprise that the cumulative effect of toxins in the environment resulted in the explosion of all types of developmental disabilities in the last quarter of the 20th Century. The American Chemistry Council has been around for over a century and organizations like them have always refuted studies warning of dangerous products – radon poisoning and leaded gasoline are 2 examples.

  4. Mary Scholer says:

    I have been a pediatric occupational therapist for 39 years. In the first 20 years, I only worked with one child with autism. In the last 19 years almost every child I see has autism. There is very little being done to protect us all from corporate greed, risking everyone’s health!

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