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How new research on chemicals in household products gives new meaning to 'at-risk kids'

Published: Friday, March 7 2014 9:35 a.m. MST

New research shows that even more chemicals than previously thought can cause brain damage and behavioral disorders — and some of those chemicals are found in products that we use in our homes every day.

Kirsty O'Keeffe, Getty Images

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Giggle is an upscale children’s store on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, situated strategically across from a playground and next to a popular spin cycle and yoga studio where yuppie moms come and go all day.

The store is decorated with close-up photos of wide-eyed happy babies, and the walls are stocked with layettes and onesies in familiar soft blues and pinks and pops of bright colors; baby bedding is bedecked with the usual cast of owls, foxes and other woodland creatures. What’s different about most of the products here can’t be easily seen.

A fuzzy pink baby hoodie feels like the softest chenille, but no. “That’s made from bamboo,” says Chrystal, a knowledgable store clerk. She peels back a giraffe sheet to show the crib mattress: “This is filled with coconut husk.”

Giggle is one of several upscale children’s chains and boutiques that offers products that are free of the toxins often found in children's products. Its line of baby clothes are made with organic cotton sourced from Egypt to be free of pesticides, and cribs are made with responsibly sourced wood in Latvia. Wooden toy tea sets, cameras and a kid-sized baby grand piano are marked "formaldehyde free" and coated with organic paint.

Going to these extremes in the name of safety and environmental sustainability can easily be dismissed as extreme yuppie trendiness unique to places like Manhattan and Santa Monica. These items are also expensive — an organic cotton layette is $28-$58, and all-natural rubber pacifiers, free of BPAs and PCBs, are $10 apiece. But recent research confirms that chemical exposure — especially for babies and young children — can have serious consequences, and experts say it should be of concern to all parents.

The number of household industrial chemicals that are known to derail brain development, cause cognitive and behavioral disorders, and lower IQs in susceptible children has doubled over the past several years, according to a comprehensive neurotoxicity report released last week in the neurobiology journal Lancet. In 2006, a systematic review found five brain-harming chemicals, including lead, arsenic and toluene, among others. The new study now adds six more neurotoxins to the list, including pesticides, solvents and flame retardants found in common household products.

One of the study’s co-authors, Dr. Philippe Grandjean, suggested that society is facing a pandemic of "chemical brain drain" as young children are increasingly exposed to brain-damaging chemicals that can sap intelligence.

Mind-altering substances

Some of the chemicals in the study have already been identified as harmful and banned for household use — like lead, for example. In a written statement, Ryan Baldwin of the American Chemical Council, an industry trade group, maintained that Grandjean's study is "highly flawed," as the authors ignore the fundamental scientific principles of exposure and potency. "As the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has stated, the level of exposure to a chemical is most relevant, not its mere presence," the ACC says.

“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," says the statement.

Grandjean and other experts are not so sure. About one in six children in the U.S. is now affected by a cognitive or behavioral disorder, such as autism or ADHD, and environmental toxins are among the suspects for this rise.

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