Greater regulation of toxic chemicals needed

DDT. Asbestos. BPA. These are well-known toxic substances. American consumers recognize these names and, increasingly, the negative impact that they have on our health. But amidst the tens of thousands of chemicals that are listed on the U.S. Environmental Protecting Agency inventory, only a small minority have been tested for toxic effects – and only a fraction of those have been evaluated for effects on brain development in children.

Now, we have clear evidence that certain chemical compounds inhibit brain development, during both pregnancy and childhood. But many of those chemical compounds remain in consumer products that are used daily across the country. It’s time for our government to improve the ways that chemicals are regulated in this country, and it’s time for companies to stop relying on dangerous compounds – and to stop finding equally dangerous workarounds.

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Based on our understanding of the development of a fetus’s brain, we have long known that pregnancy is a “critical window of vulnerability,” meaning that exposure to toxic chemicals can have a long-lasting impact on health. Exposure during pregnancy can significantly interfere with a child’s ability to reach his or her full potential throughout childhood and into adulthood.

Recent data have increasingly shown that certain pesticides, flame retardants, air pollutants, lead, and mercury can contribute to learning behavioral, or intellectual impairment, as well as neurodevelopmental disorders such as ADHD or autism spectrum disorder. In other words, with improved control on the use of these chemicals, some cases of disorders such as ADHD or autism could be prevented.

Admittedly, there are restrictions in place regarding use of these chemicals. For example, the President recently signed the Frank R. Lautenberg Chemical Safety for the 21st Century Act into law, modernizing the chemical safety and approval process and amending the decades old Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA). Most importantly, new protections were introduced to safeguard pregnant women, infants, and children from the harmful effects of toxic chemicals.

However, work is not done and efforts must continue to ensure that chemicals entering commerce are safe for women and families. After all, decades of exposure have impacted countless Americans. And in many cases, ongoing exposure continues to impact children, as the chemicals are already part of their environments. This is especially true in communities of color and underserved populations, and it only serves to heighten disparities in these children’s futures.

But besides the comparatively few regulated chemicals, there are thousands and thousands of other toxins in our environment. We can be certain that we are missing opportunities to prevent exposure.

As a doctor, I know the importance of evidence-based decision-making, and know the errors that can ensue from hasty action. But when it comes to the health and safety of our children, we need our government to act more swiftly and resolutely to proactively test and, if needed, restrict dangerous chemicals.

Much of the problem also lies in the private sector, which routinely introduces workarounds – referred to as “regrettable solutions” – that bypass regulatory efforts but introduce equivalent levels of harm. For example, when the U.S. government reached a voluntary agreement with manufacturers to stop making flame retardants with proven neurotoxicities, the same manufacturers found substitutes that were similar in structure to the previous iterations, but had not undergone assessment, so were thus not yet subject to regulatory restrictions.

This government loophole only served to put more infants and children at risk of brain development disorders that would impede their neurological abilities throughout their lives.

The data are clear, and that’s why a wide range of experts ranging from obstetrician-gynecologists like me to pediatricians, endocrinologists, toxicologists, epidemiologists, and public health experts have come together to create Project TENDR – Targeting Environmental NeuroDevelopmental Risks – to call for change from the government whose job it is to protect us and from the manufacturers who have the power to do better.

Our regulators need to overhaul their approach to developing and assessing evidence on chemicals that are known to cause interference in brain development, including paying attention to the special vulnerabilities of the fetus and child, the cumulative effects of exposure to multiple chemicals, and the lack of a safety threshold. And they need to focus on addressing and mitigating legacy exposure to chemicals that have already reached the environment.

And the business that make and use these chemicals must eliminate all neurodevelopmental toxins from their products, eschewing the workarounds that continue to put us in danger. They share this world with us, and they have a major role to play in keeping it safe for our families.

We cannot continue to gamble with our children’s health, as their futures represent the future of this country.


Tom Gellhaus is president of the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG).