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Common chemicals endanger children's brain development, study says

Chemicals raising concern among researchers are used in everything from personal care products to food packaging and pesticides.

By
Stephen Feller
Chemicals found in a variety of common products pose dangers to children's development, as well as to adults, and require greater scrutiny by regulators, say researchers at the University of Illinois. Photo by BelkaG/Shutterstock
Chemicals found in a variety of common products pose dangers to children's development, as well as to adults, and require greater scrutiny by regulators, say researchers at the University of Illinois. Photo by BelkaG/Shutterstock

CHAMPAIGN, Ill., July 1 (UPI) -- Dangerous chemicals used in manufacturing, some banned and others not, need greater regulatory attention because of the danger they pose to children's brain development, according to the authors of a new study.

Researchers at the University of Illinois say a host of commonly used chemicals, from lead and mercury to flame retardants and pesticides, need greater attention and regulation because of mounting evidence they are a threat to brain development.

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The study calls into question the method for government agencies evaluating scientific evidence about contamination of the environment, suggesting a new framework to assess the danger of the chemicals is needed.

"For most chemicals, we have no idea what they're doing to children's neurodevelopment," Dr. Susan Schantz, a comparative biosciences professor at the University of Illinois, said in a press release. "They just haven't been studied. And if it looks like something is a risk, we feel policymakers should be willing to make a decision that this or that chemical could be a bad actor and we need to stop its production or limit its use. We shouldn't have to wait 10 or 15 years -- allowing countless children to be exposed to it in the meantime -- until we're positive it's a bad actor."

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For the study, published in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives, the researchers identified several chemicals that require greater attention: lead; mercury; organophosphate pesticides used in agriculture and gardening; phthalates, used in makeup, pharmaceuticals and plastics; flame retardants called polybrominated diphenyl ethers; and air pollutants produced by the burning of wood and fuel.

Nearly all of the chemicals are known to interfere with growth during prenatal development, disrupting the formation and maturation of neurons in the brain. In the case of some of the chemicals, such as phthalates, most pregnant women test positive for them and they are known to interfere with thyroid hormone function.

Photo by Julie McMahon/University of Illinois

Because researchers say the full effects of most chemicals is unknown, however, more research and more stringent evaluation of those studies are needed to prevent their negative effects on development.

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"These chemicals are pervasive, not only in air and water, but in everyday consumer products that we use on our bodies and in our homes," Schantz said. "Reducing exposures to toxic chemicals can be done, and is urgently needed to protect today's and tomorrow's children."

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