Chemical warfare on children’s brains: Where environmental toxins meet education


In May, a Trump administration appointee to the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) toxic chemical unit directed the rewriting of rules on toxic chemicals that would make tracking their health risks more difficult. Easing regulations on certain toxic chemicals—regulations that aim to keep dangerous toxic exposures out of the air, public drinking water, and the nation’s food supply—can result in a “chemical brain drain” that strangles the learning potential of children. This is clearly problematic as early childhood development programs show strong evidence of long-term impact and are among the few areas in the U.S. that enjoy strong bipartisan support. Exposing environmental toxins to children provides a new and insidious form of chemical warfare that can thwart these efforts to raise educational outcomes.

What are the effects of toxins?
For adults, exposure to toxins, including organophosphate pesticides, is known to cause impaired memory, convulsions, and parkinsonism, among other serious health effects. Currently, these pesticides are among the most widely used in the U.S. and globally for agricultural insect control and food production. Although banned for indoor residential use by the EPA in 2001, these chemicals continue to be used on numerous crops in farming communities, where residents are exposed via airborne drift and the general public is exposed via food residues.

Research finds that the effects on the developing brain are even more profound.

One of us, Virginia, has demonstrated the potency of these chemicals on baby brain growth. Exposures during pregnancy have been linked to lowered birth weight, motor delays, ADHD-type behaviors, and working memory problems and tremor—and these adverse effects have been corroborated by published reports from other groups in California and New York, despite differences in populations, geographical locations, and ways of measuring exposure in the body. Most dramatically, behavioral effects have been backed up by changes in brain structure, persisting into adolescence.

The developing brain does not expect to be exposed to toxic chemicals that threaten its very structure and connections. Moreover, the developing brain is particularly vulnerable to lead and some pesticides—a sensitivity that is greatest in utero and throughout early childhood. Why? First, the structure and connections in the brain of an unborn child are fragile and “unfinished”. Second, young children have disproportionately heavier exposures to widespread chemicals, reflecting their higher metabolic rate, greater consumption of food, water, and air per pound of body weight, as well as reduced capacity to clear or expel chemicals from the body.

The negative consequences of early chemical exposure are both long lasting and potentially irreversible, with effects on school success, physical and mental health, and quality of life in adulthood. Protecting brain development from toxic chemical threats should be a global priority. This will require that regulatory agencies are aware of the impact their decisions can have on young children.cue_pesticides_brain_001

From one perspective, this example from the U.S. highlights conflicting economic and public health interests. On the one hand, governments hope to create environments in which children thrive—be it in school or out. Conversely, businesses enjoy greater profits when they are free from regulation. However, economic and public health interests should not be in conflict—they should be completely aligned. The workforce of 2042 is in utero today and we need to ensure policies provide enabling environments for successful development.

It is possible to both support the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals on education and healthy lives, as well as business growth. To do so, however, requires that policymakers look across sectors—beyond the traditional bins in which they practice—to see how they influence one another.  This means that educators need to understand environmental context, and science/public health professionals need to broaden their outcomes to include key indicators of learning.

As we prepare for success in a rapidly changing world, child health and education must remain a central priority. Ensuring that our children are ready to meet the challenges of the 21st century will require that we are mindful of the many factors that enhance or restrict future thinkers, actors, and doers. The use of toxic chemicals is high on the list of those policies that may yield short-term benefits to industry at the expense of long-term capacity of our children (and future workforce) to contribute to a vital and healthy national economy. True investment in early childhood is more than a budgetary issue; it means having the foresight to remove toxic exposures from our environment to create the conditions for optimal learning that will enable our children to thrive.