How new research on chemicals in household products gives new meaning to 'at-risk kids'

Giggle is an upscale children’s store on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, situated strategically across from a playground and next to a popular spin cycle and yoga studio where yuppie moms come and go all day.

The store is decorated with close-up photos of wide-eyed happy babies, and the walls are stocked with layettes and onesies in familiar soft blues and pinks and pops of bright colors; baby bedding is bedecked with the usual cast of owls, foxes and other woodland creatures. What’s different about most of the products here can’t be easily seen.


A fuzzy pink baby hoodie feels like the softest chenille, but no. “That’s made from bamboo,” says Chrystal, a knowledgable store clerk. She peels back a giraffe sheet to show the crib mattress: “This is filled with coconut husk.”

Giggle is one of several upscale children’s chains and boutiques that offers products that are free of the toxins often found in children’s products. Its line of baby clothes are made with organic cotton sourced from Egypt to be free of pesticides, and cribs are made with responsibly sourced wood in Latvia. Wooden toy tea sets, cameras and a kid-sized baby grand piano are marked “formaldehyde free” and coated with organic paint.

Going to these extremes in the name of safety and environmental sustainability can easily be dismissed as extreme yuppie trendiness unique to places like Manhattan and Santa Monica. These items are also expensive — an organic cotton layette is $28-$58, and all-natural rubber pacifiers, free of BPAs and PCBs, are $10 apiece. But recent research confirms that chemical exposure — especially for babies and young children — can have serious consequences, and experts say it should be of concern to all parents.

The number of household industrial chemicals that are known to derail brain development, cause cognitive and behavioral disorders, and lower IQs in susceptible children has doubled over the past several years, according to a comprehensive neurotoxicity report released last week in the neurobiology journal Lancet. In 2006, a systematic review found five brain-harming chemicals, including lead, arsenic and toluene, among others. The new study now adds six more neurotoxins to the list, including pesticides, solvents and flame retardants found in common household products.

One of the study’s co-authors, Dr. Philippe Grandjean, suggested that society is facing a pandemic of “chemical brain drain” as young children are increasingly exposed to brain-damaging chemicals that can sap intelligence.

Mind-altering substances

Some of the chemicals in the study have already been identified as harmful and banned for household use — like lead, for example. In a written statement, Ryan Baldwin of the American Chemical Council, an industry trade group, maintained that Grandjean’s study is “highly flawed,” as the authors ignore the fundamental scientific principles of exposure and potency. “As the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has stated, the level of exposure to a chemical is most relevant, not its mere presence,” the ACC says.

“What is most concerning is that the authors focus largely on chemicals and heavy metals that are well understood to be inappropriate for children’s exposure, are highly regulated and/or are restricted or being phased out. They then extrapolate that similar conclusions should be applied to chemicals that are more widely used in consumer products without evidence to support their claims. Such assertions do nothing to advance true scientific understanding and only create confusion and alarm,” says the statement.

Grandjean and other experts are not so sure. About one in six children in the U.S. is now affected by a cognitive or behavioral disorder, such as autism or ADHD, and environmental toxins are among the suspects for this rise.

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.

“Sleeping is a third of our lives, and it’s supposed to be a restorative state. But it’s not if we’re breathing chemicals,” she says. “It’s really important for kids, because they sleep even more than we do.”

She buys certified organic sheets for her own family and recommends looking for bedding, rugs, and paint that have stringent certifications like GreenGuard Gold certification, which tests products for 10,000 chemicals with an independent third-party organization. Organic cotton can make a difference because cotton is a big pesticide crop and there are likely residues in cotton textiles “just like in the food we eat,” she says.

Innovation and regulation

It’s easy to assume the EPA protects us from harmful chemicals, but due to regulatory law, it’s difficult to take action against dangerous chemicals and the companies that produce them, even those known to cause cancer or to have other serious effects. The system is “innocent until proven guilty,” as Masepohl describes it. “It flies in the face of the precautionary principle that things are proven safe before they’re released to the public.”

Lonky and Graziano are less sure that the dosages are harmless. The chemical lobby is powerful and regulation is slow, says Lonky, and if there are 84,000 industrial chemicals in our environment now according to the EPA, eradicating them can only be a part of the solution. He notes that when he was young, in the 1950s, everyone was born at “zero,” meaning with no chemicals in their bodies. “Now, no one is born at zero — everyone is born with chemicals that have been passed to them through the placental barrier from their mother,” he says. We have yet to see what happens when those chemicals compound from one generation to the next, he says.

Lonky’s hope is not so much for eradication, but innovation — methods for detoxifying our bodies, especially young men and women of childbearing age.

So far, chelating agents, substances that are taken in pill form or intravenously to remove heavy metals from the body, have been met with controversy.

For example, Zeolite minerals like clinoptilolite and EDTA, a popular chelating detoxifier, are not FDA approved and more research is needed to determine their efficacy.

Still, Lonky would like to see enterprising young people tackle the problem of detoxification in novel ways. “I’m not a doomsdayer,” he said, before running off to play pirates with his grandson. “There’s a market opportunity there — for developing diet, new ways of life, products that will bind to chemicals and pull them safely from our bodies. I’m hopeful.”