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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

Studies show that pesticides can lead to structural changes in children's brains and loss of IQ, and solvents and stain treaters have been linked to neurological and psychiatric problems.

The costs of diagnosis, treatment and special education are concerning, say Grandjean and his co-author, Philip Landrigan, chairman of the department of preventative medicine at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York City. And, they assert that the stakes are much higher — that society could actually be losing intelligence at an alarming rate.

Losing a few IQ points might not seem like a big deal on an individual basis, but if the average IQ among American children dropped by five points, about half as many members of that generation would be "intellectually gifted," they say, and twice as many would be "intellectually impaired."

Can these substances — like flame retardants and stain resisters in clothes or couches — that we live with in our homes every day really be as harmful as Grandjean and Landrigan claim? "Absolutely," says Joseph Graziano, professor of environmental health sciences and pharmacology and director of the Columbia University Superfund Research Program.

Graziano agrees that dose makes a difference. "There's a saying in toxicology: the dose makes the poison." For example, the first two substances on the report's new blacklist are manganese and fluoride, which are naturally occurring substances that the body needs in small amounts, like the amounts found in foods or in your toothpaste. But large amounts become problematic. Graziano did research in parts of Bangladesh, for example, where well water is naturally rich in manganese, and his study showed a clear dose response: higher manganese, lower IQ.

The other substances in the new "dirty half-dozen" are man-made industrial compounds with confounding names like chlorpyrifos, tetrachloroethylene and polybrominated biphenyl ethers, which, in order, are a pesticide, dry cleaning and degreasing agent, and flame retardant used in textiles, plastics and cars.

"You can look at umbilical cord blood and find a suite of pesticides at birth — mothers are exposed prior to pregnancy, and during pregnancy, with consequence," says Graziano.

Playing it safe

So how do we get away from this stuff?

It's not easy, says Dr. Stewart Lonky, fellow of American College of Physicians and co-author of "Invisible Killers," a book about the effects of toxic chemicals on human health. He uses perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) — a chemical used to provide non-stick surfaces on cookware and waterproof, breathable membranes for clothing — as an example.

"It's in non-stick cookware, it's in Scotchguard, you can't live without it. Even if you do, you go to Starbucks or your favorite restaurant, how do you know they don't use it?" says Lonky. "Every adult ever tested for PFOA has it in their blood — 100 percent."

Doesn't our body just process these compounds and excrete them in urine? No, says Lonky, that's "wishful thinking" and a "bunch of hooey." They must be broken down by the liver, and our livers get overwhelmed with toxins, so the chemicals end up in fat and brain tissue. This is especially dangerous to young children, whose livers can't process toxins yet, and whose brains are susceptible to developmental changes. And unfortunately, exposure to small amounts of these chemicals over a long period of time is actually more harmful than one big dose — and that's exactly what happens to most people. We encounter the chemicals in small amounts every day — flame retardants applied to our electronics, pesticides in foods we eat every day — and Lonky says that they add up.

Trina Masepohl is a former chemical engineer who worked at the National Renewable Energy lab in Golden, Colo., for six years before founding Mixx Modern green interior design for nurseries. She says a good place to start is the bedroom.

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