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8 Toxic Chemicals That Are Affecting Your Brain Health

Certain chemicals, now or once ubiquitous in our environment, may affect our brain health—especially in infants and children. Learn more about these chemicals, where they’re found and how to avoid them.

| September/October 2014

  • Scientists have found at least eight chemicals that have negative effects on developing children.
    Photo by Veer/Erik Isakson
  • Flouride is naturally present in water, but many cities add it to their water supply to help prevent tooth decay.
    Photo by Getty Images/Steve West
  • Because airborne pollutants often end up in waterways, using caution when choosing seafood is among the most effective ways to limit consumption of many environmental toxins.
    Photo by StockFood/Rua Castilho
  • Toxic lead can be found in a variety of products including inexpensive children's toys.
    Photo by Veer
  • Children are especially vulnerable to chemicals because their bodies' defenses to toxins are not fully developed yet.
    Photo by iStock
  • As of 2014, California manufacturers can sell upholstered furniture with no toxic flame retardants.
    Photo by iStock

We’ve all heard that ingesting lead paint chips is bad for children and that pregnant women need to be careful about what type of fish they eat, but did you know there are at least 11 chemicals scientists think may have major effects on our brains, especially as they’re developing? As researchers dig into the dangers of certain common (or formerly common) chemicals used in a wide array of products, they’re uncovering links to brain health, including changes in mental abilities and behavior.

In 2006, Philip Landrigan, a doctor from the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York, and Philippe Grandjean, a doctor from Harvard School of Public Health in Boston, published an article in the journal The Lancet sounding the alarm about five chemicals believed to affect the mental development of infants and small children. In February 2014, they published a follow-up article in The Lancet Neurology with six more. Together, that’s 11 chemicals thought to affect the brain development of children, with effects including lower scores on tests of intelligence, memory and attention; poorer performance in school; and in many cases behavior problems. The researchers hypothesize that the rise in neurodevelopmental disabilities including autism, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), dyslexia and other cognitive impairments may be linked to early exposure to these chemicals.

We’ll get into what these chemicals are and how best to avoid them, but first, why the focus on children? Children are especially vulnerable to chemicals for several reasons: For one, their defenses to toxins aren’t fully developed yet. The blood-brain barrier that keeps many chemicals from entering our brains isn’t fully formed until we’re about 6 months old. Chemicals can also hit children at crucial windows of mental and physical development. In many cases, exposures to chemicals as infants or even while in the womb can affect people for the rest of their lives. Simply put, children need greater protection from these chemicals than adults do (although in larger doses they affect adults, too). While the majority of us may not be pregnant or have a young infant, it’s wise to learn about these chemicals, where they appear in our environments and how they can affect our brains and behavior.

1. Lead

How are we exposed to it? Although lead paint hasn’t been sold since 1978, it’s still found in many older homes. Lead can also be found in older plumbing and in a variety of products including colorful ceramics (it’s sometimes used in the paint), inexpensive children’s toys, and even lipstick (a recent study found traces of lead in most lipsticks, along with aluminum, chromium and manganese in many others). People who do a lot of home remodeling as an occupation or hobby may be exposed to lead more often.

Health effects: Lead has well-documented cognitive effects in children who are exposed, causing a lowered ability to learn. In adults, high levels of lead are linked to brain and nervous system damage; hearing, vision and muscle coordination problems; and a variety of other issues, including high blood pressure, kidney problems and impotency. There is no indication that any level of lead exposure is safe.

Tips for dealing with it: The EPA recommends keeping painted areas in good condition to decrease lead exposure—if you believe you have lead-based paint in your home, paint over it or contact a lead abatement professional. You should also consider replacing lead-containing plumbing fixtures, which are a potential issue if you have nonplastic plumbing installed before 1986. You can buy drinking water lead-testing kits in home-improvement stores. Learn more.

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