Toxic Chemicals Linked to Health Problems in Children

By Cat Lazaroff

WASHINGTON, DC, September 7, 2000 (ENS) - The 24 billion pounds of developmental and neurological toxins released into the environment of the United States each year are linked to millions of cases of developmental disabilities in children, charges a new report released today.

The report ranks toxic emissions state by state. Data reported by industries shows that Louisiana and Texas emit the most developmental and neurological toxins to air and water. Tennessee, Ohio, Illinois, Georgia, Virginia, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Florida are also major emitters.

power plant

Coal burning power plants produce large amounts of mercury and PCBs, known developmental toxins (Two photos by Carole Swinehart, courtesy Michigan Sea Extension)
The report by the National Environmental Trust (NET), Physicians for Social Responsibility and the Learning Disabilities Association of America is the first to comprehensively examine the scope and sources of toxic chemicals with known links to health and development problems in children.

"Polluting Our Future: Chemical Pollution in the U.S. that Affects Child Development and Learning" reveals that U.S. industries reported just five percent of estimated total emissions of developmental and neurological toxins - 1.2 billion pounds - to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

"This is the first complete snapshot we’ve ever had of toxic pollution in this country that can affect the way that children’s bodies and brains develop," said Jeff Wise, NET policy director.

The U.S. Census Bureau estimates that about 12 million U.S. children under 18 - one out of every six children - suffer from one or more developmental, learning, or behavioral disabilities. These include disabilities like mental retardation, birth defects, autism, or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.

The National Academy of Sciences estimated earlier this year that about three percent of developmental and neurological defects in children are caused by exposure to known toxic substances - including drugs, cigarette smoke, and known developmental and neurological toxins like lead, PCBs and mercury.

This means that 360,000 U.S. children - one in every 200 - suffer from developmental or neurological deficits caused by exposure to known toxic substances.


Metal producers rank high among producers of toxic chemicals (Photo courtesy Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore)
The report released today argues that it is likely that the actual impact of toxic chemicals on child development and learning is much greater. The National Academy’s estimates considered only known toxins - but the majority of the 80,000 chemicals in used commercially have never been tested for developmental and neurological effects.

"Now we know what we have suspected for years, that toxic chemicals are bringing anguish to thousands of families in this country," said Larry Silver, M.D., president of the Learning Disabilities Association of America and clinical professor of psychiatry at Georgetown University Medical Center. "These are families that worry, work overtime, and go without to take care of a child with a developmental or neurological disability like mental retardation or learning disabilities."

As suggested by two National Academy of Sciences reports on the subject over the last three months, there is a growing consensus among scientists that developmental and neurological toxins contribute to a range of physical and mental effects in children.

Although specific data vary greatly in quality, "Polluting Our Future" documents what appear to be increases in some birth defects, attention deficit disorder and autism.

The report also includes data showing increases in low birthweight and premature births - two important risk factors for a range of physical and mental defects. These increases have been identified in young, healthy mothers having single births, not multiple births which carry a much higher risk of birth defects.

While the full range of causes for these trends has yet to be identified, "Polluting Our Future" cites a host of studies indicating toxic chemicals are contributing to these adverse birth outcomes.


Plastic trash bags and many other common plastic products can contain toxic organochlorines - known to cause developmental and neurological problems (Photo courtesy Universal Plastic)
"While it’s usually impossible to say that a particular child’s disability is caused by a toxic chemical, it is clear that toxic chemicals are taking a tragic toll across the population," said Ted Schettler, M.D., an occupational and environmental health physician with Physicians for Social Responsibility.

The report includes national information about releases of developmental and neurological toxins, a ranking of the states, and information about the top releasing counties, industries and facilities in each of the 50 states.

The report finds that chemical manufacturers; makers of paper, metal and plastics; and electric power utilities are the largest emitters of developmental and neurological toxins nationwide. The printing industry is shown to be the largest source of air emissions of tolueneone - the most released developmental and neurological toxin.

"Because many printing facilities are often closer to residential areas than other industries, this industry and government should make greater efforts to switch to safer technologies that present less of a potential health risk to children nearby," advised Lynn Goldman, M.D., a pediatrician and professor at Johns Hopkins School of Hygiene and Public Health.


The print industry is the nation's largest source of air emissions of toluene - a developmental toxin (Photo by Warren Gretz, courtesy National Renewable Energy Laboratory)
"Polluting Our Future" found that, like other toxic pollution, pollution that affects child development and learning has a disproportionate impact on minorities. The report reveals that African American populations exceed the national average in most counties with the highest releases of developmental toxins.

The groups releasing the report say that because the U.S. regulatory system has focused predominantly on cancer causing substances, it has not addressed the public health risk from developmental and neurological toxins.

The groups recommend that the government adopt new policies, including pre-market screening of new chemicals and mandatory testing of existing chemicals.

They suggest better product labeling and pollution reporting, toxic chemical controls for electric power plants, and exposure and disease monitoring.

"This report is yet another in a series of wake up calls to parents and policymakers that our children are being harmed by the current chemical environment and lack of regulatory oversight," said Dr. Schettler.

The complete report is available at: