These common household toxins are impacting children's brain development, study finds

Elise Solé
Flame retardants and pesticides are a threat to children's development, according to a January 2020 study. (Photo: Getty Images)
Flame retardants and pesticides are a threat to children's development, according to a January 2020 study. (Photo: Getty Images)

Two everyday substances — flame retardants and pesticides— are responsible for millions of lost IQ points and intellectual disabilities among children, new research has found.

The Jan. 14 study, published in the journal Molecular and Cellular Endocrinology, examined data from the Centers for Disease Control’s National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, which included urine and blood samples from women of reproductive age, as well as from children under the age of 5.

While childhood exposure to lead and mercury is declining (along with their dangerous effects) due to public policies, exposure to polybrominated diphenyl ethers, a.k.a., flame retardants — chemicals added to products from couches and bedding to car seats and building insulation to stop fire from spreading — and organophosphate pesticides, which kill pests on plants, are still health threats.

“There were 162 million lost IQ points from flame retardants and 26 million lost from pesticides,” study author Abigail Gaylord, a PhD candidate from New York University’s Langone Medical Center, tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “Flame retardants also accounted for 738,860 cases of intellectual disability and, from pesticides, 111,830 cases.” The study only specified “intellectual disability” as an IQ lower than 70.

According to the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, many flame retardants (those found in some furniture, for example) have been removed from products over the years. But they can still linger in the air, ground, water and dust, resulting in cancer or reproductive and hormonal problems. And, per the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), pesticides, found in produce, could harm the nervous system and cause cancer. Meanwhile, lead and mercury, heavy metals found in the earth and atmosphere, can damage the brain, kidneys and the nervous or immune systems

The research team also addressed the economic impact of their combined results, estimating it to reflect a $6-trillion loss. “That may not be noticeable with a two-point IQ difference between children, but on a larger scale, it shows the true cost across the population,” Gaylord tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “Each lost IQ point is valued at $22,268 and each intellectual disability represents $1,272,470.”

The study doesn’t denote that lead and mercury aren’t a problem. In fact, wrote the study authors, “although the Environmental Protection Agency's efforts to remove lead from gasoline and paint has resulted in declining blood lead levels, further lead control efforts are needed to reduce exposure. Leaded paint may no longer be used, but dust from remaining paint layers poses a major risk for lead inhalation and ingestion, especially among young children. The lead crisis in Flint, Michigan, makes evident that lead exposure from water is not obsolete either.”

Gaylord tells Yahoo Lifestyle, “Policies have been working but we have to turn our attention to these synthetic chemicals. We should stay on the forefront, so things don’t get worse.”

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