The growing onset of neurodevelopment disorders in babies such as autism and ADHD may be rooted in toxic chemicals to which infants are exposed. That's the opinion of Philippe Grandjean, adjunct professor of environmental health at Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH) and Philip Landrigan, Dean for Global Health at Mount Sinai. Their study was published today in The Lancet.
"The greatest concern is the large numbers of children who are affected by toxic damage to brain development in the absence of a formal diagnosis. They suffer reduced attention span, delayed development and poor school performance. Industrial chemicals are now emerging as likely causes," said Grandjean.
The new study follows similar research by the authors published in 2006 in which they reviewed clinical and epidemiological studies and identified five industrial chemicals as developmental neurotoxicants: lead, methylmercury, polychlorinated biphenyls, arsenic and toluene.
Grandjean and Landrigan's current review updates that list and adds six newly recognized developmental neurotoxicants: manganese, fluoride, chlorpyrifos and DDT (pesticides), tetrachloroethylene (a solvent), and the polybrominated diphenyl ethers (often used as flame retardants).
The effects of neurotoxicity can be society-wide, the authors note, as loss of IQ points may bring down earnings thereby affecting GDP. They can be costly as well; for example, the annual cost of lead poisoning in the U.S. is $50 billion, while behavioral problems associated with neurotoxicant exposure could also require special educational services and may even lead to incarceration, the authors write.
"The presumption that new chemicals and technologies are safe until proven otherwise is a fundamental problem," the authors write, adding, "Voluntary controls seem to be of little value."
Grandjean and Landrigan are advocates for the introduction of the "precautionary principle" which Wiki summarizes thusly:
"The precautionary principle or precautionary approach states if an action or policy has a suspected risk of causing harm to the public or to the environment, in the absence of scientific consensus that the action or policy is harmful, the burden of proof that it is not harmful falls on those taking the action.
"This principle allows policy makers to make discretionary decisions in situations where there is the possibility of harm from taking a particular course or making a certain decision when extensive scientific knowledge on the matter is lacking. The principle implies that there is a social responsibility to protect the public from exposure to harm, when scientific investigation has found a plausible risk. These protections can be relaxed only if further scientific findings emerge that provide sound evidence that no harm will result."
This sort of rationale appealed to Adam Smith who wrote the 18th century masterpiece, the Koran of Free Enterprise Capitalism, The Wealth of Nations. It was this same Adam Smith who warned of the "order of men" like Joe Oliver and Stephen Harper.
"The proposal of any new law or regulation of commerce which comes from [the business community] ought always to be listened to with great precaution, and ought never to be adopted till after having been long and carefully examined, not only with the most scrupulous, but with the most suspicious attention. It comes from an order of men, whose interest is never exactly the same with that of the public, who have generally an interest to deceive and even to oppress the public, and who accordingly have, upon many occasions, both deceived and oppressed it."
We have left the barn door wide open an awfully long time but it's never too late to start acting sensibly by embracing the precautionary principle in our governmental and regulatory decision-making.
Time we stopped poisoning our babies and corrupting our water and wreaking havoc on our atmosphere.