NADD Bulletin Volume XII Number 2 Article 3

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The Toxic Assault on Our Children

Philip and Alice Shabecoff


It took us a few years after our first grandchild was born before we became aware that today’s children are different from generations before, that so many now suffer from one type of chronic illness or another.  Is that really so and, if so, why, we wondered.  As environmental journalists, we began to investigate.  Our findings shocked us.  There is indeed an epidemic of disorders, striking one out of three American children, triggered by the unimaginable load of toxics in their everyday lives.  The toxification of the environment is as grave a threat to the future as global climate change. 


Across the nation, from Columbia University’s study of children born to mothers exposed to the airborne pollution created by the crashing Twin Towers of 9/11 (Lederman, Rauh, Weiss, Stein, Hoepner, et al., 2004), to the University of California at Berkeley’s tracking of children born to farm laborers exposed to organophosphate pesticides (Eskenazi, Marks, Bradman, Harley, Barr, et al., 2007; Shabecoff & Shabecoff, 2008), the scientific evidence of cause and effect has emerged, by now solid and indisputable.  The harm to children ranges from cancer, birth defects, and asthma, to a wide array of neurodevelopmental disorders.  Study by study, year after year, strengthens the association between the polluting outside world and the troubles that beset the child’s interior world, his mind, emotions, and behavior.


The scientific discoveries backing these new studies often reverse the thinking of earlier science.  Among them is the realization that the child in the womb is at highest risk, that exposure to even minuscule amounts of a toxin can do irreparable harm.  This is exquisitely true for neurodevelopment. (Gilbert, 2004; Wigle and Lanphear, 2005; Coborn, Dumanoski & Myers, 1997; Shabecoff & Shabecoff 2008; Schettler, Stein, Reich & Valenti, 2000)  Though harm can take place as different parts of the brain and central nervous system continue to develop at different times during the first three years of life, the most critical development stages of the brain and nervous system take place in the fetus during the first two months after conception, while the period of most rapid development is the third trimester. (Gilbert, 2004)   Contrary to the belief of earlier decades, the placenta does not filter out most toxic substances, and the blood-brain barrier is undeveloped and permeable until the child is six months old. (Berkowitz, Wolff, Matte, Susser & Landrigan, 2001)  Babies born preterm or below normal  birth weight – and this is increasingly the case,-- are more likely to suffer from lower IQ and learning problems, cerebral palsy, mental retardation, autism, asthma, and diabetes.  (Perera, 2003; Perera, 2005; American Diabetes Association, undated)


The brain is uniquely sensitive and uniquely complex.  Its unfolding requires a multitude of changes: cells divide, migrate, make connections, and get selectively pruned.  While the liver, for example, is made up of a few kinds of cells, there are thousands of different kinds of cells in the central nervous system.  These delicate changes of varied parts place the brain at special risk of a ‘whoops’ factor that will forever diminish the child (Slotkin, 2005).  Levels of a neurotoxin – a chemical toxic to the brain and nervous system -- that would have little or no effect on an adult’s brain can permanently harm a child’s (Etzel, 2003).  Chemicals that have a temporary effect on the adult brain can produce permanent change in a child’s developing brain (Needleman & Landrigan, 1994).  “We greatly underestimate the impact of toxic chemicals because the brain is so different from the kidney or liver.  You can live a perfectly healthy life with just one kidney.  But even subtle changes to the brain have substantial implications,” says Dr. Phillippe Grandjean of Harvard’s School of Public Health (Grandjean & Landrigan, 2006)


Another recent discovery finds that the damage done by a neurotoxin will differ, depending on factors such as the timing, duration, and pathway of the exposure (Schettler, 2000).  This holds just as true for mental, emotional, and behavioral damage as for asthma, birth defects, and other illnesses.  Timing is especially critical because the parts of the brain and nervous system that control different functions – motor control, sensory, intelligence and attention – develop at different times  (Sadler, 2004).  In addition, the amount of a toxin that reaches the system is a factor in its effect (Shabecoff & Shabecoff, 2008, pp 97-98).  Furthermore, different chemicals affect different regions of the system, to interfere with different processes (Carpenter, Arcaro, & Spink, 2002). 


Given these variables, it is now understood that toxins can bring about differing consequences: hyperactivity, attention deficit, learning disabilities, aggressive behavior, dyslexia, cerebral palsy, mental retardation, Tourette syndrome, and the spectrum of autism disorders.   These are all “a set of dysregulations that take different forms in different kids,” explains Dr. Martha Herbert, a pediatric neurologist who both treats children and pursues research at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston (Silverman and Herbert, 2003) 


Yet another shift in understanding mental-behavioral illnesses is the realization that they couple both the mind and the body.  Take autism as an example. While the mainstream research and clinical community may still consider autism something that’s happening inside the brain, and perceive the autistic child’s bodily symptoms, such as severe gastrointestinal pain, as incidental and worthy of little attention, the new thinking sees these symptoms as clues to understanding the biological mechanisms that cause the illness and as clues to treatment.  Dr. Herbert puts it this way: “the widespread changes we’re seeing in autistic brains may occur in parallel with or even downstream (i.e., after, or as an outcome of) the widespread changes in the body, such as in the immune system” (Herbert, 2005).  This understanding directly acknowledges the impact of environmental chemicals and explains why treating bodily symptoms, such as with a changed diet, may improve brain conditions.  


Why do some children get sick from toxic exposures while others do not?  The decoding of the human genome has recently revealed that, in addition to inherited variations that are genetic mutations, there are inherited variations that are slight differences in the sequence of DNA in the genes.  These variations are the reason a child is born with green eyes rather than brown, or blood type A rather than O. (National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, n.d.).  These variations also predispose a person from the womb through life to be more or less vulnerable to environmental insults.  For example, some people have a lesser ability to metabolize and excrete heavy metals. (James, Cutler, Melnyk, Jernigan, Janak, 2000).   Unfortunately, these variations mean that a fetus or child might well be doubly vulnerable: first, by the defenselessness of his immature body and, second, by carrying a variation that lowers his level of defense. 


Yet it’s crucial to remember that a child might have a predisposition to an illness but the illness would never surface without the toxic assault (Koger, Schettler, & Weiss, 2005).  The genes may load the gun, but the environment pulls the trigger!


What then are ‘neurotoxins’?  Heavy metals – including lead, mercury, cadmium, --  are neurotoxins (Needleman & Landirgan, 1994;Yuan, Holland, Cecil, Dietrich, Wessel, et al., 2006,)  So are pesticides, (Schettler, Solomon, Valenti, & Huddle, 1999) and air pollutants. (Schettler, 2001; Bower, 2008)  Some of these substances work their harm by interfering with the neurotransmitters in the developing brain.   But pesticides as well as other chemicals, such as PCBs in household dust, rocket fuel in water (Subcommittee on Environment and Hazardous Materials of the Committee on Energy and Commerce, 2008) , and flame retardants in mattresses also can endanger the child’s future intellect and behavior by interfering with hormone signals from the endocrine system (Colborn et al, 1997), specifically, the thyroid hormone, which is a major manager of behavior and intellect. (Zoeller, 2007; Mendola, Selevan, Gutter, & Rice, 2002)  In fact, the brain and behavior are probably, of all the child’s developing parts, the most susceptible to chemicals that disrupt the endocrine system, from the womb, into infancy and the toddler years.  (Myers, n.d.) Hormone disruptors, as has only lately been discovered, also can work their harm by confusing the way a person’s genes would normally express themselves – the way they turn on or off; the gene no longer does what it’s supposed to do (for example, a repair gene may stop repairing). (Colborn et al, 1997)  This disruption can trigger cancer, infertility, male reproductive tract deformities, as well as learning and behavioral problems (Shabecoff & Shabecoff 2008).


Christina Ebling and her younger brother A. J. were normal, attractive little children when in 1994 their family moved into an apartment in a nice-looking garden complex in Indiana.  Soon both children began to be convulsed by seizures.  Today they both have intellectual disabilities.  Christina, now 16, is incontinent; her speech is barely intelligible, she cannot even brush her own teeth.  A.J. has an IQ of 44. (Shabecoff & Shabecoff 2008).


The parents subsequently discovered that their apartment had been repeatedly sprayed with Dursban, an organophosphate pesticide made by Dow Chemical Company, plus another chemical of similar make-up.  In 1995, the Environmental Protection Agency fined Dow $876,000 (virtually a slap on the wrist) for hiding from the agency for over ten years the 327 lawsuits and other claims against the company of adverse effects resulting from exposure to Dursban.  (Environmental Protection Agency, 1995)  Though Dow never conceded any harm from Dursban, it withdrew the product from household use.  It remains in commercial use, and residues of this pesticide still show up in the urine of nearly every American child.


Government regulatory agencies whose role is to protect us from environmental harm have collaborated in the toxic assault by sharply pulling back on their regulating.  Further, a powerful new network of scientists-for-hire, public relations firms, and lawyers has grown up to serve polluting companies.  Their role on behalf of their corporate clients is to cast doubt about the dangers of toxic products and processes.  The goal is to arm companies with research and expert testimony to delay or derail regulation, to overwhelm families who bring lawsuits against them, and to mollify the fears of communities faced with pollution and of consumers faced with toxic products.


The years-long struggle over perchlorate, a chemical used in rocket fuel, illustrates how harmful chemicals remain in widespread use.  If perchlorate finds its way into a person’s body, through drinking water for example, it knocks out the thyroid gland’s ability to use iodine and that disrupts the body’s major systems.  In an adult, that could be harmful.  In a fetus or infant, even in small amounts, it can severely damage the brain. 


For decades, perchlorate has been leaking from military dumpsites into surrounding areas. For decades, the military and its aerospace contractors have known about the leaks.  By now, perchlorate contaminates the public drinking water sources that supply 40 states, the entire Colorado River and the water for farms in California growing berries and lettuce for the nation.  But military suppliers Lockheed Martin and Kerr-McGee, among others, have colluded with the Pentagon, spending millions of dollars to block the EPA from requiring any clean up.  The corporations have called on ‘science-for-hire’ laboratories to generate study after study over the years to muddy the debate and to keep fighting with EPA over ‘safe’ levels.  (Shabecoff & Shabecoff, 2008; Waldman, 2005)  So far they’ve succeeded.  EPA  announced in late 2008 that it would not regulate perchlorate (Eilperin, 2008) (though it’s said to be rethinking that decision).


Our job as parents and grandparents is to shield children as much as possible from exposure to toxins.  But there’s no way we can individually consume our way out of harm.  It’s only if we also act as citizens, organizing together in our communities and exercising political clout, that we can force the substitution of harmful with benign substances and the creation of a healthful, green world.  




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Philip and Alice Shabecoff are the authors of Poisoned Profits:  The Toxic Assault on Our Children (Random House, 2008) which presents the cumulative scientific evidence connecting toxins in our everyday lives with the epidemic of children’s chronic illnesses, examines how the harm is kept under wraps, and discusses what to do to remove these toxic threats.


For further information, contact Alice Shabecoff at or see