Mind Games

WHEN MY HUSBAND AND I SET OUT to find a nursery school for our daughter, Faith, nearly ten years ago we took the decision seriously. I looked at large parent-run cooperatives and visited small home-based operations. Jeff studied the pink towers and chiming bells at the Montessori school on the hill and considered the wonder balls and wooden fairies at the Waldorf school in the valley. In the end, we chose a nursery school that operated out of a community center close to home. There was a frog pond out front and a play structure out back. The trees were full of chickadees and nuthatches. We had weighed many considerations in the decision-making process, and we all, Faith included, were happy about it.

That is, until I discovered that, like many of its kind, the school’s beloved play structure – with its wooden gangway, turrets, and tunnels  — was made out of pressure-treated lumber, which, at the time, contained arsenic, a carcinogen. A bladder carcinogen, in fact. I am a bladder cancer survivor. I am familiar with this particular disease and all the ongoing medical surveillance it requires. So, after a lot of research and discussion, we eventually decided to move our daughter to a different nursery school. The risk of doing nothing just seemed too high.

Seven years later, the Environmental Protection Agency released its final risk assessment for children who regularly contact wood impregnated with chromated copper arsenate. The conclusion: children who play frequently on pressure-treated play sets and decks (we had one of those, too) experience, over their lifetimes, elevated cancer risks. Ergo, our precautionary decision as parents to disenroll our daughter had been a wise one. And yet, because the EPA stopped short of recalling pre-existing play structures and decks when it outlawed arsenic-treated lumber for residential use in 2004, the old play structure at our old nursery school still stands.

ARSENIC, AS IT TURNS OUT, is not only a carcinogen but a developmental neurotoxicant as well – one of a family of substances that impair the growth of the brain in ways that interfere with learning. They take many forms, according to a major review of the evidence published in 2006 in the British medical journal The Lancet. Some of them are heavy metals, such as lead and methylmercury. Some are long-outlawed compounds that still linger among us (PCBs). One common one is used to strip paint, turn crude oil into gasoline, extract natural gas from shale, and suspend pigment in some nail polishes (toluene). Another two hundred chemicals are known to act as neurological poisons in human adults and are likely toxic to the developing brains of infants and children as well  —  animal studies strongly suggest that any neurotoxic chemical is likely also a neurodevelopmental toxicant – but scientific confirmation awaits.

Current laws do not require the systematic screening of chemicals for their ability to cause brain damage or alter the pathways of brain growth, and only about 20 percent of the three thousand chemicals produced in high volume in the United States have been tested for developmental toxicity of any kind. The Lancet paper is one of the most comprehensive summaries available to date (though the EPA is preparing to release its own list of developmental neurotoxicants in early 2011). Parents struggling to pay tutors, tuition bills, and school taxes — who are, right now, clearing off a spot on the kitchen counter to sit down and offer help with homework — might consider taking a look at this compilation, particularly the review’s central conclusion: “The combined evidence suggests that neurodevelopmental disorders caused by industrial chemicals have created a silent pandemic in modern society.”

In the basket of problems labeled neurodevelopmental disorders are a variety of cognitive and psychomotor disabilities that have different names and changing diagnostic criteria. Mental retardation – increasingly referred to as intellectual disability – is one. Attention deficit disorder, with or without hyperactivity, is another. A third is learning disabilities, itself a basket of discrete disorders that are variously characterized by significant difficulties in listening, speaking, writing, memorizing, reading, or calculating. Dyslexia is a well-known type of reading disability. Its mathematical equivalent is dyscalculia. Within the life-altering category of pervasive developmental disorders is autism – a continuum of problems that is now collectively referred to as autism spectrum disorders.

By pandemic, the authors of The Lancet study mean that learning and developmental disorders are common, cut across all walks of life in all geographic regions, and are ballooning in prevalence. Changing diagnostic criteria, along with the absence of a nationwide registry, makes vexing the work of constructing precise time trends. The estimate most often cited by the medical literature is that developmental disabilities now affect about one in every six U.S. children, and most of these are disabilities of the nervous system. If accurate, this figure means that the number of children with neurodevelopmental disorders now exceeds the number of children with asthma, which is also a problem of pandemic proportion.

By silent, the authors mean that these disorders are subclinical. They don’t announce themselves on an X-ray or in a pathology lab. There is no medical test to herald their increasingly familiar presence among us.

Child neurodevelopmental disorders do, however, leave economic tracks behind. At $77.3 billion per school year, special educational services, according to the most recent accounting, consume 22 percent of U.S. school spending. This is a cost we all pay. According to a 2006 Harvard study, the annual societal cost for mental retardation is $51 billion. For autism, it is $35 billion. The financial burden of autism is particularly cruel for families because affected children typically have special health needs and require more medical care on top of everything else. For a profoundly affected child, annual costs for care can exceed $70,000  —  or $3.2 million over the lifetime of a single autistic individual. Tellingly, even in the face of those kinds of financial costs, many of which are shouldered by the family, the demands of caring for an autistic child compel some parents to give up paid work altogether.

Of course, the child whose IQ is diminished by early-life exposure to neurotoxic chemicals but who is not classified with a disorder also incurs economic costs to the family and to the community  —  but these are not reflected in the estimates above.

LET’S LOOK MORE CLOSELY at the trends. Mental retardation, which affects 2 percent of children (one in every fifty), is one of the only disorders whose incidence is going down – in part as the result of the drop in children’s lead levels over the past two decades.

This drop is dramatic – from an average of thirteen micrograms of lead per deciliter of blood when I was a first grader to less than two today. Clearing lead from the blood and brains of children was made possible by two public policy decisions: the 1977 decision to phase lead out of house paint, where it was used as a pigment, and the 1990 decision to phase lead out of gasoline, where it was used as an antiknock additive. Those accomplishments, carried out over the objections, threats, denials, and obfuscations of the lead industry, are considered triumphs of public health. As well they should be. Lead exposure, at any level, is associated with distractibility, poor language skills, aggressive behavior, and lower overall intelligence. Removing lead from paint and gasoline lowered its levels in soil and house dust, and thereby slashed lead levels in children by a factor of six.

Lead is one of only two chemicals – the other is mercury – that we actually do regulate on the basis of its ability to sabotage brain development in children at background levels. At vanishingly small concentrations – at levels far lower than are required to swell the brain and produce the clinical, physical symptoms of poisoning – lead can paralyze the moving neurons within the growing brain of a child. As a result, the architecture of the brain is subtly altered in ways that compromise later learning. Many children labeled as mentally retarded in years past were, as we now know, actually lead poisoned.

In contrast to mental retardation, the neurological developmental disorders mentioned earlier are on the rise. Four times more prevalent than mental retardation and twice as common in boys than girls, ADHD now affects nearly one in every ten children between the ages of four and seventeen. An estimated 5.4 million children are believed to suffer from ADHD, a condition that affects impulsivity and self-control as well as attention span. (Of these, 2.7 million–nearly 5 percent of all U.S. children–are on medication to control it.) The prevalence of ADHD has been increasing an average of 3 percent a year. (Some, but not all, of the apparent rise in ADHD is fueled by relaxed diagnostic criteria.)

Just ahead of attention problems are learning disabilities, which now affect 10 percent of U.S. children, according to the latest survey of a nationally representative sample. Of course, these are not mutually exclusive problems; some children are challenged both by attention deficits and by a learning disability.

Autism, first given a name in 1943, is a condition that is difficult to quantify, due to the complex nature of the disorder and changes in how it’s been defined over the decades. Children so affected may or may not have intellectual deficits. Indeed, some individuals with the variant called Asperger’s syndrome have keenly developed intellectual skills. Along the spectrum of disorders that carry its name, impaired social interactions is the unifying trait. Other distinguishing features include repetitive behaviors, a narrow range of interests, limited symbolic thinking, an insistence on sameness, and, mostly notably, language deficits. About 40 percent of autistic children do not speak. Others do learn to talk but, often, far later than their peers. And a quarter of autistic children initially develop vocabularies and then, inexplicably, lose them, word by word, sometimes gradually, sometimes overnight.

Over the past two decades, the number of children identified with autism or autism spectrum disorders has increased tenfold. Not all of the upsurge represents a real increase in prevalence. Because the disorder was once blamed on poor parenting, shame and stigma almost surely obscured the true frequency of autism in decades past. In addition, as with ADHD, changing diagnostic criteria that now accept a broader array of signs and symptoms have applied the word autism to children who, in an earlier time, might have been labeled otherwise.

And yet, the ever-longer shadow that autism casts cannot entirely be explained away by changing definitions, greater cultural acceptance, and relaxed diagnostic criteria. An audit of carefully tended records in California suggests that less than half of the apparent increase in autism is due to a more generous application of the label. Even after correcting for evolving diagnostic criteria, excesses remain. The Centers for Disease Control estimate that autism presently affects almost 1 percent of U.S. children overall–about 730,000 individuals–and is four to five times more common in boys than girls. One in every 110 U.S. eight-year-olds now has autism. Among boys only, the rate rises to one in seventy.

Autism is the most swiftly rising developmental disorder, yet no one knows what causes it. Genetic factors clearly contribute – several variations in several genes have been identified as players, and identical twins are more likely than fraternal twins to be dually affected – but the genes involved are many and seem to create predispositions rather than destiny. A dramatic rise in incidence over a short time period certainly points to the potential role of environmental exposures. But what role? And what exposures?

Considerable early investigation focused on the question of whether the preservative thimerosal is linked to autism. Mercury-based thimerosal was used in children’s vaccines until 1999 and is still found in some flu shots. For the majority of cases, the evidence does not point to a vaccine-autism link. As one thorough review of the topic concludes, “There are no reliable data indicating that the administration of vaccines containing thimerosal is a primary cause of autism.” It’s still possible that vaccinations play a role in a subset of autistic children–perhaps those with inborn genetic susceptibilities. But with autism rates still on the rise years after thimerosal was removed from vaccines, the search has shifted to include a much broader array of potential environmental contributors.

There are no answers yet, but there are some clues from the field of pharmacology. When taken by mothers during the first trimester of pregnancy, three drugs–thalidomide, misoprostol, and valproic acid–have been linked to increased risk of autism, as has infection by pregnant mothers with rubella (German measles). These results do not explain the increase in the prevalence of autism – these three compounds are rarely used medicines, and population-wide rubella vaccination has brought the infection rate of German measles far below what it was when I was a child – but they do point to early pregnancy as a window of vulnerability for autism. A 2010 review of the evidence, published in Current Opinion in Pediatrics, thus recommended that future research efforts into the causes of autism seek to identify other environmental exposures–perhaps a common chemical of some kind – to which pregnant women are routinely exposed.

THE VERY THICK BOOK Holt’s Diseases of Infancy and Childhood, copyright 1936, marches through an alphabetical litany of horror  —  rickets, scarlet fever, syphilis, tetanus, tuberculosis. Flipping through the copy that I found in the used bookstore here in our village, I tried to imagine what my life as a mother might have been like in 1936 – the year that my own mother was six years old. I was about to conclude that my concerns for my children are entirely different ones than those that would have worried my grandmother, until I reached the final pages of the book. Under “Miscellaneous Diseases, Lead Poisoning” is this complaint:

The body seems to be able to repair all damage except that done to the brain. The prognosis of children who recover from the acute symptoms of lead encephalitis is bad . . . most of them are dull or obviously defective. . . . The treatment of lead poisoning is most unsatisfactory. It is obvious then that prevention of exposure is the main line of attack. Parents should be educated to recognize the possible harm of pica [eating things that are not food], paint chewing and other common methods of acquiring lead. In spite of the rather high incidence of cases of lead poisoning there are no laws in this country to prevent the use of lead paint in children’s toys and furniture. In only three states is it necessary to label paint so that one may ascertain that lead is an ingredient.

Forty years before it was removed from paint, pediatricians had enough evidence of lead’s ability to maim children’s brains – catastrophically and irreversibly – to warrant discussion in a medical textbook. The only cure was understood to be prevention, but in the absence of government action, or even right-to-know legislation, parents were left to serve, as best they could (ineffectively, as we now know), as their own poison-control centers. Stumbling upon this paragraph reminded me that, even though the labels have changed, the evidence for an environmental connection to neurodevelopmental disorders is not exactly news.

Other than a keener appreciation for subtle damage at subclinical levels of exposure, what have we learned since 1936?

There seem to be four big lessons arising from the frontiers of pediatric neurotoxicology. The first is that the developing brain is more vulnerable than the adult brain, and the timing of exposure can determine whether and how severe the damage might be. PCBs, for example, are linked to decrements in remembering. Specifically, they interfere with recall ability and long-term retrieval of memories. They do so, in part, by disrupting the activity of thyroid hormones whose job it is, during development, to direct neurons to their proper places within the brain. The first cells to arrive then help direct the later ones. Thus, for PCBs, the earlier in development the chemically induced disruption, the more aberrant the final architecture in the memory centers of the brain.

The second lesson is that neurotoxicants can act in concert with each other. Prenatal exposure to lead contributes to the risk of ADHD, as does exposure to tobacco smoke. Both together, however, create a higher risk than either one alone. These findings indicate that neurotoxicants need to be regulated as a group rather than one by one.

The third is that elements of a child’s social and nutritional environment can also be toxic to the development of cognition and can magnify the effects of exposure to chemical toxicants. Poverty and family stress are particularly detrimental. Attention deficit disorder is more prevalent among poor children, as are learning disabilities. Children living within dysfunctional families are also at increased risk for a learning disability. (If you have ever wondered, while listening to two people yelling  —  and one of them is you – if dysfunctional is an applicable label for your own family, know that there are some established criteria. One of them is having a parent who “rarely discusses serious disagreements calmly.” As long as the adverb rarely is part of the definition, I can honestly say that I am not that parent. But, when short on sleep and patience – as when simultaneously confronting quarterly estimated tax payment worksheets and a child who has made sibling annoyance a personal hobby – I have seen the road to that parent. And it’s sobering to realize that more than emotional lives can be wrecked when tempers flare too often and too wildly.)

And fourth, maybe not surprisingly, is that the chemicals designed to act as neurological poisons – the organophosphate pesticides – truly do so. And at levels common among children. Frequently used in fruit and vegetable farming, organophosphate insecticides kill by attacking the nervous systems of insect pests. They have the same effect in humans: organophosphates interfere with the recycling of the neurotransmitter acetylcholine, one of the messaging signals that flow between neurons. Mounting evidence collected among various populations of children – from Harlem neighborhoods to the fields of California’s Central Valley – all suggest that organophosphate exposure affects cognition. For example, a small study of inner-city minority children found connections between organophosphate levels in their umbilical cord blood collected at birth and attention problems at age three. These results were later corroborated by the results of a large study of children selected to serve as a cross-sectional representation of the U.S. population as a whole. Its main finding was this: children with above-average levels of pesticides in their urine were twice as likely to have a diagnosis of ADHD.

The release of this study in spring 2010 triggered intense media coverage and lots of advice-giving to concerned parents. Wash fruits and vegetables well. Opt for organically grown food. Eschew pesticidal lawn chemicals. Avoid organophosphate pesticides when attempting to control insect pests within the home or on the family pet. With these admonitions, I felt I was back in 1936 with Dr. Holt: to prevent lead poisoning, tell parents to stop children from putting things in their mouths.

This sort of public health approach – surround kids with brain poisons and enlist mothers and fathers to serve as security detail — is surely as failure-prone with pesticides as it was with lead paint. Following all the popular advice, I do feed my children organic food, and my pesticide-free “freedom lawn” lets a thousand flowers bloom.

But Faith and her brother, Elijah, do not live solely within the bubble of my kitchen and property lines. They occupy a much bigger ecological niche, and I cannot verify the agricultural origin of every food item served at every birthday party, summer camp, sleepover, recital, and library summer reading program event. I can’t ensure that every backyard soccer field, every patch of lawn, and every pet in every neighborhood home they run in and out of are free of organophosphates.

Nor can I stop the wind from blowing. Even if I home-schooled my children and confined them to the premises, their bodies are connected to the rest of the world through the medium of air. Our house exists within a village community that is ringed by dairy farms and cornfields. The chemicals sprayed in those fields, on the neighbors’ lawns, and on the driving range and putting greens of the village golf course can easily drift into our yard. And every study of pesticide drift indicates that they almost certainly do  —  just as every study of lead indicates that, sooner or later, lead molecules exit painted walls and windowsills and seed themselves into soil and dust. The average four-year-old performs 9.5 “hand-to-mouth interactions” per hour. If lead – or pesticide – is in the dust or on the pet or inside the food, it’s in the kid.

I am a conscientious parent. I am not a HEPA filter.

If organophosphate pesticides are damaging children’s brains at background levels of exposure and above, they should be abolished. After decades of dithering, abolition was the decision we ultimately made with lead paint. It worked. Educating parents to prevent the problem on their own did not work.

Those who argue that abolition for organophosphates is unrealistic need to explain how realistic it is to run a high-quality public school system when more than 9 percent of children can’t pay attention and one dollar of every four must be directed to special educational services.

In response to the publication of the study linking organophosphates to increases in ADHD, the EPA released a statement that summarized its work to phase out a limited set of organophosphate pesticides. I doubt that I was the only parent less than comforted to learn that the amount of organophosphates used on foods favored by children (e.g., apple juice and grapes) has declined by half – from 28 million pounds in the mid-1990s to 12 million pounds in 2004. My reaction to this news was along the lines of, 12 million pounds of known brain poisons with suspected links to ADHD are sprayed on foods commonly eaten by kids? Every year? That’s insane.

EXPOSURE TO AIR POLLUTION – whether indoors or out – also harms children’s cognitive development. Specifically, it reduces intelligence. Thus, the combustion of fossil fuels not only creates a climate problem, it renders our children less able to solve it  — or any other problem.

Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) – the sooty chemicals released from tailpipes and power plants – are the leading culprit. In studies of young laboratory animals, PAHs behave as neurodevelopmental toxicants, and they appear to have the same effects in children – although the mechanism by which they impede brain growth is not yet known. As part of their series of long-term studies, researchers at the Columbia Center for Children’s Environmental Health demonstrated in 2006 that three-year-olds who had higher levels of exposures to PAHs during pregnancy – as measured by their levels in umbilical cord blood – scored lower on cognitive tests when compared to less exposed counterparts.

Subsequent studies in New York City and in Krakow, Poland, revealed similar findings. In both countries, five-year-olds exposed to above-average levels of PAHs scored, on average, about four points lower on standardized tests of reasoning ability and intelligence.

Research conducted in China before and after a coal-fired power plant was shuttered reveals similar results – but with a happy twist: Two-year-olds with elevated prenatal exposures to PAHs showed poorer neurobehavioral development when compared to less exposed toddlers. However, after the power plant shut down two years later, concentrations of PAHs in umbilical cord blood declined, and the neurodevelopmental scores among an identical cohort of toddlers improved. Mothers who got pregnant after the coal plant closed had smarter children.

Coal extinguishes intelligence by a second route: through its release of mercury into the atmosphere, which then finds its way into the brain cells of children through the medium of fish. From the earth to the air to the water to the dinner table. And so into blood and neurons.

When coal is extracted from its Carboniferous tunnels and burned in power plants, the mercury it contains vaporizes. Once airborne, the newly liberated metal can wander the skies for up to a year, traveling thousands of miles. Eventually, it falls with raindrops and snowflakes back to the Earth’s surface. (Urban smog encourages this homecoming.) Bacteria then convert mercury into the potent – and persistent – brain poison methylmercury. Concentrating as it moves through the food chain, methylmercury can magnify its powers many times in aquatic systems, where food chains are long. Our main source of exposure, then, is seafood  —  especially large, predatory fish.

When consumed by a pregnant woman or a young child, fish ushers molecules of methlymercury into a developing body and into a developing brain. Here it can cause many kinds of damage. Methylmercury stunts the growth of baby glial cells, disrupts the transmission of dopamine, and damages cells in the hippocampus – a sea horse–shaped structure that serves as an office of memory. Altogether, prenatal exposure to methylmercury is associated with loss of IQ, learning disabilities, forgetfulness, attention deficits, as well as balance and coordination problems.

In 2003, the Centers for Disease Control quantified the problem: one of every twelve U.S. women of reproductive age has blood mercury levels above that known to be safe. Accordingly, every year, more than 300,000 infants are born at risk for mercury-induced cognitive impairment. In a 2005 study, no doubt designed to reach the ears of politicians deaf to all but financial impacts, researchers at Mount Sinai School of Medicine’s Center for Children’s Health and Environment put a price on these findings. Noting that the diminishment of IQ leads to reduced economic productivity, these authors estimated the societal cost associated with mercury emissions from U.S. power plants at about $1.3 billion a year from loss of intelligence alone. (The burning of coal is not the only industrial practice driving the creation of methylmercury, but it is the single biggest one.) Coal is not cheap.

In August 2009, the U.S. Geological Survey released the results of a comprehensive study that sampled fish taken from streams across the nation – including the isolated and the pristine. Mercury was found in every single fish. The year before the study was released, all fifty states had issued advisories warning the public – especially women of reproductive age and their children – to limit their consumption of particular types of freshwater fish caught in local waters. Mercury was the reason for 80 percent of these advisories. Some ocean fish, including tuna, are also sufficiently contaminated to trigger recommendations for consumption limits. Indeed, tuna, all by itself, contributes more than one-third of the total methylmercury exposure from seafood.

Tuna salad: the new lead paint.

Divorcing women and children from fish is, of course, an imperfect solution to the problem of mercury contamination, as it deprives them of the considerable health benefits that also come from eating fish. A better solution would be to divorce ourselves from coal – and pursue a full-bore affair with renewable energy.

BECAUSE WE LIVE on a climate-altered planet, as journalist Bill McKibben reminds us, it’s no longer possible to distinguish, even in the weather, the hand of nature from the hand of industrial pollution. A prolonged drought, a massive snowstorm, a powerful hurricane: these phenomena could be part of the natural order, or they could be a consequence of two centuries of intensive fossil fuel combustion. From here on out, we’ll never know.

Similarly, we live in chemically altered bodies now and think with chemically altered brains. It’s no longer possible to discern, in our children, what part of their temperaments or cognitive quirks is innate and what part is derived from the cumulative impact of chemical exposures. Is a rush-ahead, chaotic, unfocused style the sign of a cheerfully unconcerned personality? Or a symptom of a subtle brain disorganization triggered by prenatal exposure to pesticides?

The child who still can’t decode a clock face by age ten: a normal variation? Or the result of mildly elevated blood leads at age one? And is the ongoing difficulty with telling time somehow related to the ongoing confusion about how to add fractions with unlike denominators? Or is the source of the latter problem the math curriculum at school?

At the very least, trying to decipher all this is terribly time consuming, expensive, and inconvenient for parents. Parent-teacher conferences. Parent-pediatrician conferences. Educational assessments. After-school appointments with therapy providers. E-mail exchanges with the math tutor. Tears shed at the kitchen table during homework time. All these activities require hours and hours of problem solving, research, advocacy, and  —  most of all  —  continued acts of loving patience. Parenting a child with possible attention or learning problems is high-maintenance parenting – just as is parenting a child with asthma and allergies. When you are inside this world, the perceived convenience of the nation’s energy and agricultural systems, both of which rely on low-cost, neurotoxic substances, looks very different.

Even if you are not living inside the world of attention and learning disorders, your child almost certainly is – at school.

As more precious educational resources and instructional time are directed toward accommodating the increasing number of children with special needs, the community of the classroom is profoundly affected. While the results may not always be negative, we should acknowledge that they are real.

To all appearances, Faith and Elijah’s school brings a remarkable combination of compassion and pedagogical skill to the classroom management of children whose minds are wired in alternative ways – whatever the cause. (Once they reached school age, we enrolled Faith and Elijah in the Montessori school on the hill, where Jeff also teaches art.) As a result, my two children have a much greater exposure to – and understanding of – a diversity of learning abilities and disabilities than I did. While hanging around the parking lot during school dismissal recently, I overheard the following conversation:

Child one: So does he have Asperger’s or is he being mean to you?

Child two: Asperger’s.

They nod, shrug, and get on the bus.

And during a potty break at a highway rest stop, while chaperoning a field trip, I was a participant in the following scene involving a boy we’ll call Kenny:

Group of boys to me: Hey, Faith’s mom, can you help Kenny? He’s scared of the toilets.

Indeed, Kenny was frozen to a bench, rocking rhythmically, his eyes squeezed shut.

Group of boys to Kenny: Hey, dude. Faith’s mom is going to stay with you. Don’t freak out.

So I sat with Kenny on a bench outside of a cinder-block men’s room filled with roaring, autoflush toilets while the others took their turns inside. And as I held his hand, I could only marvel at the tender mercies of his ten-year-old comrades. In my elementary school, any boy frightened by toilets – with or without a special needs designation – would have been tormented to within an inch of his life.

AS PARENTS, we can only do so much to protect our children from the brain-disrupting chemicals that lurk in every part of the Earth’s dynamic systems – its water cycles, air currents, and food chains. Faith and Elijah spend their days in a school full of equipment and furniture that no doubt contain brominated flame retardants (which, according to a 2010 study published by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, is linked to lower scores on tests of mental development among children exposed in utero). They ride home on a diesel-powered bus. They fly around town on bicycles – or scooters or skateboards – to flute lessons, piano lessons, the public library, passing by pesticide-treated fields and lawns as they go. And when we lie together in the dark at the end of the day, I sometimes wonder how their brain architecture might have been  —  might still be  —  irreversibly altered, even if only slightly, by brain-damaging chemicals that are still allowed to be manufactured and sold, that are constantly pouring out of smokestacks and tailpipes, that are used as ingredients in everything from lipstick to gasoline. I sometimes think about these things when I watch one or the other of them erase a hole through a frustrating homework assignment and start over again.

So don’t give me any more shopping tips or lists of products to avoid. Don’t put neurotoxicants in my furniture and my food and then instruct me to keep my children from breathing or eating them. Instead, give me federal regulations that assess chemicals for their ability to alter brain development and function before they are allowed access to the marketplace. Give me a functioning developmental neurotoxicant screening program, with validated protocols. Give me chemical reform based on precautionary principles. Give me an agricultural system that doesn’t impair our children’s learning abilities or their futures. Give me an energy policy based on wind and sun.

Because I can do the thinking and research associated with making the right school choice for my children. I can help them with multiplication tables and subject-verb agreement. I can pack healthy school lunches. But I can’t place myself between their bodies and the two-hundred-plus identified neurotoxicants that circulate freely through the environment we all inhabit.

Sandra Steingraber is the author of Living Downstream and several other books about climate change, ecology, and the links between human health and the environment. She was an Orion columnist for six years. Author photo: Laura Kozlowski.


  1. Wow! I love it. The onus should be to prove chemical is safe BEFORE it is utilized and released into the environment, not to prove it is harmful after the fact.

  2. thank you! a fabulous article…brings it all together wonderfully. and now-what to do? support EWG. contact our representatives. any other ideas?

    i frequently post similar information on FB, and rarely do these posts even get comments! it is mind-boggling to me that there isn’t more popular outrage over the poisoning of our environment and our children.

  3. Excellent article! Shades or Rachel Carson. As a neurologist, I see a many kinds of disturbances of the nervous system, and very few answers in many cases as to the cause. We really cannot test for so many of the potential or known toxins. Mercury and lead are just the tip of the iceberg.
    It really bothers me that so little attention is given CAUSATION – in medicine, and public policy.
    Thank you so much for this.
    I agree with Rachel Kerr: what are best vehicles or “interest groups” to bring this to wider attention.

  4. While I found this article well written and compelling, I was taken aback by your lack of understanding and dismissal of the mercury in medicine issue.

    From the words you used, it is clear to me that you have apparently been brain washed by the Establishment’s propaganda and have not, as I have, studied this issue for more than a decade.

    Factually, mercury compounds are 10 to 100 times as toxic as the corresponding lead compounds.

    In addition, sodium ethylmercurithiosalicylate, the mercury compound used in vaccine is clearly “exquisitely” toxic to humans at mercury levels in developing children below 0.005 micrograms of mercury per kilogram of body mass (or < 5 nanograms of mercury per kilogram of body mass) and is typically more than 10 times as toxic to developing neurons, astrocytes, and fetal skin cells than methylmercury hydroxide.

    Moreover, because it is bolus dosed directly into the human body, the doses of mercury injected into our children from vaccines preserved with this ethyl mercury compound are much more toxic than the mercury consumed in food as well as that inhaled from the air we breathe.

  5. “Shades of Rachel Carson is right. Many researchers have known for years that this is our (we humans), “Silent Spring.”

  6. Very alert observations… and our world can be enhanced by the brain being an actual electric powerhouse of thought, activity and Health. I am still an advocate by continmually reminding people to be “Earthen contact with the Earth…for total natural health…as best we can in our world of “Special Agendas”. I can’t advertize my book but the benefits are very effective…for total natural health! Ask Orion?
    George Verdon Author

  7. Good article to increase AWARENESS of these risks. So many of our products and industries create these hidden expenses. This has to be taken seriously.

  8. Thank you, Sandra, for this important piece! I am full of gratitude to you for writing with such clarity and heart!
    May your message go far and wide and help to bring about the changes we need for the sake of the generations to come and the planet itself!

    I will share this article with my friends.

    All the Best!


  9. good article…I especially like the reference to the book written in 1930’s. By being mindful of what we knew and did nothing about in the past, we may be able to define this problem more accurately today. Also the term, “subclinical”, was unknown to me until today. Good work Sandra!

  10. Sandra, thank you so much for this article, which is informative and full of heart. I have birthed and raised four children, and, from the beginning, I fervently wanted to provide a safe and nurturing environment for them. They had homebirths, 3 years of nursing, vegan organic diets, organic beds, organic body care products, and so on. When I reached the end of your article, I was crying because you expressed perfectly that cry from the heart of a mother. We can’t do it all. It takes a village to care for the children. In gratitude, Dawn Kimble

  11. Thank you for this article!! I’m going to reference it in my next post. I’m trying to help educate people around me too. And I, like other commenters here, wonder why we don’t prove a chemical is safe first, and allow it for use second. My child was recently diagnosed with ADHD and it has opened my eyes to much of what you point out in the article. I am blown away by people’s apathy on the matter. I am equally grateful for your voice. Thank you from the bottom of my heart for your words.

  12. I have a child who was diagnosed with chronic arsenic exposure almost a year ago. We initially got him tested for heavy metal exposure because he was starting to exhibit ADHD-type behavior. The terrifying thing is that even though we have the diagnosis, we haven’t been able to stop the exposure. It seems to be coming from the air we breathe in our North Portland, Oregon neighborhood (and our DEQ has admitted that their monitors show levels much higher than all the models based on EPA-filed permits indicate). We are looking to move to another part of town, but there truly is not a safe neighborhood in our city, nor in any other American city I would guess.

    Suffice to say this article resonates with me deeply and I am so grateful that someone has put my experience into words. We MUST fight for overarching regulation of environmental toxics. The precautionary principle should be adopted universally.

  13. Unbelievable article! Because of people like you is why I do what I do! I am too a mom with the same heightened awareness you possess and express so beautifully. I became an environmental health consultant and building biology practitioner to help people connect their health with their environment. I have been told I am a human canary who is objectively sensitive to the environment but I have to tell you it’s daunting some days and I am still searching for a better environment for my whole family. Let’s talk offline, I would love to connect. I am writing several courses for an international company that supports autism and learning disabilities. I would love to interview you more about it. all the best, Michelle Bexelius michelle@ecoremedi.com

  14. This is a wonderfully researched article woven with experiential evidence deeply engaging for any parent or educator. I am struck by the significance of the precautionary principle as one relevant to all aspects of our culture. In the welter of onslaughts to the democratic principles to which we ascribe, from corporate hegemony to governmental complicity with corrupt regimes and so on, adhering to this principle could clarify many issues and make concerted action for change easier to organize.

  15. Excellent article, Sandra. But I would echo Paul King@4. Though they have taken thimerosal out of most vaccines, they added it to the vax schedule via the flu vaccines – and recommend them to pregnant females to boot. The mind boggles. So beware of these kinds of people, Katherine@16. Their studies can’t be trusted. Anybody who allowed a vaccine at birth – the Hep B – with a load of mercury in it, can’t be trusted with our children. Who to trust? Parents with the git-go of Sandra, who will research the matter, and then share it. And when profit is taken out of health care, then we – hopefully – will be able to trust the allopathic medical profession again. Until then: get informed. The interests of the PTB are not your interests.

  16. I thought this article brought several very relevant issues to light. One thing the author doesn’t mention is that our children are not the only ones effected by all these chemicals. We all are. We have all been effected for countless numbers of years and it is no longer acceptable to claim ignorance to the various effects of all the toxicity we produce. It’s time for some accountability and responsible action on all of our parts to make the needed changes so we can lead healthy lives in a healthy environment.

  17. Unnecessary fluoride chemicals are added to 70% of US water supplies in a failed effort to reduce tooth decay in tap water drinkers. These fluoridation chemicals are waste products of the phosphate fertilizer industry, scraped from their smokestacks, trucked as hazardous waste and added to the water by employees wearing Hazmat suits. Hydrofluosilicic acid (fluoride) is never purified and is allowed to contain trace amounts of lead, mercury, arsenic and other toxins. This is one toxic brew that can be removed from the environment by simply turning off the spigot; but it takes the political will of Moms across the country demanding that their legislator stop fluoridation in their town, city and state.

  18. Tremendous! Absolutely tremendous. Thank you for this excellent compilation of concerns many modern-day parents have regarding our environment presented in such a moving editorial format.

    You’ve done such a nice job breaking down some of the threats to our children’s health which are far too often overlooked or or downplayed by those in power. These are concerns that I, too, have as a parent. My child lives with Asperger’s Syndrome and I am constantly meeting new families raising children with various health and neurodevelopmental challenges. As Assistant Editor of AutismSpot.com, I try to share useful information about environmental threats with our readers in an ongoing fashion. Yet, so many parents remain in the dark, either because they just haven’t “heard” about these threats or because they’re in denial that our environment IS playing a role in our society’s rapid decline (in regard to overall health and well-being).

    This is a piece I will be sharing far and wide…your final paragraphs are so well stated; I couldn’t agree more!

  19. Great article! It’s just so complicated keeping track of all these chemicals. I started testing at home for different types of toxins – it’s the only way I can be sure that my family is safe. If anyone is interested just Google “home-health-chemistry” for simple DIY home test kits.

  20. Oh this is Orion not The Onion.

    Reading this it took me a while to realise that this peculiar combination of paranoia and random bits of “science” written by an expert cancer survivor wasn’t an intentional parody.

    The world is scary. Run away!

  21. However scary the world is or is not for small human children, it’s downright murderous for other species, especially with the utter lack of concern for anyone but “their own” exhibited by the writer of this article……tests of neurotoxins on young animals….let’s do more tests, and more….

  22. So glad to see this thorough and thoughtful article out there. Regulation is indeed the only way to begin addressing the more than 80,000 chemicals that have been allowed into the marketplace without adequate safety testing. We are not protected from chemicals here in the US. TSCA, the major policy we do have is heavily flawed and 35 years out of date. Support TSCA reform! A national policy reform bill is due in Congress within a year – tell your legislators that you want their support for real reform, industry will be pushing for their version of it as well. To learn more visit http://www.notaguineapig.org.

  23. Thank you, Sandra and Orion Magazine, for this excellent,if terrifying article. I am an educator in a public high school in Duluth, Minnesota. I have been wondering in recent years about the steadily rising rates of ADD, ADHD, asthma and autism spectrum disorders in kids in my classes. And I have been wondering each year WHY so many of our children seem unable to concentrate, remember, read well, problem-solve, or think critically. From my point of view, I agree with Sandra’s use of the word “pandemic.” I am realizing that perhaps not only are our children’s young brains being wired “wrong” by electronic exposures and a toxic culture; they are being irreparably damaged by environmental toxins.

    This fall, as I looked at the class roster for my one class of seniors, I realized that 1/3 of the class had medical flags for asthma! I would have thought that was a statistical impossibility!(I have never seen so many children with asthma in one class before.)

    Since reading Sandra’s article last week I (with new eyes)looked at the medical flags for all five of my class rosters. Most of my classes number around 30 students. Every class has not less than 8 medical flags; one class has 13! These medical flags include ADD, ADHD, Asthma, Type 1 diabetes and Autism Spectrum Disorder.I have more children with autism in my classes this year than I have ever had before.

    I intend to copy Sandra’s article for my administrators and our school nurse. I will also take it, if I may, to our local newspaper. I think it’s possible you will give permission for a reprint if they ask you for it.

    I hope many people see this article and act on it. Sandra’s information and her personal experience tallies with the evidence I see before me in my own classrooms: during my 14 years of teaching,I have observed the numbers of medical conditions and children needing special education services and accommodations increase steadily, year by year.

    It is a current and increasing tragedy for all species on our damaged planet.

  24. I respect and appreciate all of Dr. Steingraber’s work very much, this included, but I must now play the role of “neologism police.” Is there any difference between a “toxicant/neurotoxicant” and the more common terms “toxin/neurotoxin”??

  25. @Matthew Bosley – Yes, they are actually distinct terms. “Toxin” refers to a substance naturally produced by a living organism. A substance that is manufactured, on the other hand, is a “toxicant.” So pretty much everything Dr. Steingraber is talking about is a toxicant, not a toxin.

  26. Legislation is for sale in the USA. The recent supreme court decision made the back room bribery of elected officials legal. Don’t expect our “government” (rulers) to bite the hand of the chemical industry that dole out so many dollars for toothless regulation and permissive entitlements. The causes of the terminal illness of civilization run very deep, and will take radical measures to heal them. “Capitalism” is one of the most toxic belief systems on our planet — and yet the majority imbibe it with the same lack of understanding that they ingest the neurotoxins that Sandra warns us of. Users beware. There are other ways to share the Earth.

  27. This is HUGE! Spread the word. This could be the monkey wrench that stops the industrial mega-machine. The logical next step is a decentralized democratic organization of society based on sustainable practices that respects nature’s arrangements.

  28. Excellent article. Maybe when these politicians and CEO’s have children with these disorders proven to be caused by these chemicals then maybe they will realize that the poisons for profits model is an extremely bad idea and should be abolished

  29. Scott W. — Unfortunately worship at the altar of $$$ blinds those devotees to all other values. If you are waiting for the execs at Monsanto to have a spiritual awakening…….well, maybe next millennium, maybe…

  30. Bravo madame, well said.

    I tire of all the ” green” lists of baby and child products that i must navigate to avoid these toxins.

  31. This is a superb essay, beautifully written and compelling in the depth and breadth of its research. I am a special education attorney, representing families. Among other things I help train many non-lawyers to assist parents in advocating for their children with special learning needs. I will certainly call this piece to the attention of advocates from this moment on. Thank you.

  32. Sandra — I agree with Bob Crabtree, your article is wonderfully done. Why don’t you continue and expand it into a book. We desperately need something to wake people up to their slow poisoning. This could be a second Silent Spring! Please, please do it. It would be so important for all of us, especially our children.

  33. Thanks for the great article! SO MUCH good information that parents really should be considering, but an issue that is often overlooked!

  34. Sandra — The more I think about it, the more I am sure your forthcoming book will be a best seller. Women especially will want to know the information you are going to reveal. You have the talent to bring this topic alive for millions of us. Don’t wait another minute. Pitch it to your agent, and get to work on it. Do I sound impatient? Yes! I am dying to have it in my hands, and get all the info and stories you will dig up. Your fan……mike k

  35. The article was correct when it first stated that ‘mental retardation’ is now referred to as ‘intellectual disability.’ Just curious as to why the author repeated the politicaly incorrect term over and over…and over.

  36. Bianca — I find it amazing that your question seems to represent the most significant thing you came away from this insightful article with.

  37. Your description of the high maintanence child with learning disabilities — educational assesments, pediatric appts, tears at the kitchen table–almost made me cry myself. All this has altered my life and my son’s. Could this all have been caused by neurotoxins? I feel helpless.

  38. Humankind faces many issues, real and imagined, but without a life sustaining habitat there is no existence. All of humankind’s other issues pale to insignificance in comparison.

    You’ve very likely heard before how humanity can’t go on the way it is, but just as likely either don’t see the immediacy/seriousness of the issue, or dismiss the idea as fringe lunacy, or are resigned to humanity ending in some cataclysmic event regardless of our actions. On the other hand, you might have enough of a grasp of the ecological underpinnings to appreciate the issue, but as an individual are either confused about what you can do, or too intimidated to challenge culture’s steamroller.

    It is scientifically accepted that on a cosmological timescale the Earth’s period of habitability is at least half over. In about another billion years the Sun will start to be too luminous and warm for water to exist in liquid form on Earth. Even within the next billion years, there are numerous factors we can’t control that threaten our existence on Earth (e.g. volcanism, earthquakes, asteroids, global epidemics, etc.). The future is undoubtedly a bumpy ride.

    The issue here though is not about factors over which we have no control, that are likely to occur within the next billion years. It’s about factors we’re creating now, that we could better influence. Factors we’re already seeing the detrimental consequences of, and which at the current scope and pace will cause substantially increasing harm to humanity well within the next couple hundred years. That is, the issue is about surviving our own controllable actions in the shorter term, to have time to possibly learn to survive uncontrollable factors in the longer term.

    This isn’t another prophecy, or mythology, but rather is based on our accumulating objective understanding of natural world ecology, in which our continuing existence is rooted. Our expanding knowledge and focus is more realistically encompassing the discontinuity in the gradient of human interaction with the natural world, yet the scope and pace of our detrimental actions are accelerating frantically. The shorter term state of human existence on Earth depends on whether wisdom or irrationality prevail. That is, whether objective understanding or subjective beliefs prevail.

    To read the full rewritten article see:

    “We reached the old wolf in time to watch a fierce green fire dying in her eyes. I realized then, and have known ever since, that there was something new to me in those eyes – something known only to her and to the mountain.” ~ Aldo Leopold

    “One of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds. Much of the damage inflicted on land is quite invisible to laymen. An ecologist must either harden his shell and make believe that the consequences of science are none of his business, or he must be the doctor who sees the marks of death in a community that believes itself well and does not want to be told otherwise.” ~ Aldo Leopold

    My best to you and yours,
    Lee C

    PS: For the younger minds that can’t yet fully understand the above article, there is the short story Nature’s Magic Mirror at:

  39. endless thanks Sandra , that was an eye openning article .God bless you .
    Syrian Arab Republic

  40. While Sandra Steingraber cites toxic exposures that are possibly affecting the health of our children, she not that concerned about the damaging effects of vaccines.

    A lot is said about how bad mercury is for us, we’re told that the mercury used in vaccines isn’t a suspect and that it was removed in 1999. That’s simply not true. It was in 1999 that officials first called for its removal. It took years for vaccine makers to change production methods. It wasn’t until 2004 that thimerosal was finally reduced to “trace amounts” in most vaccines. And that was also the year that the CDC first advised that pregnant women get the flu shot at all stages of pregnancy. Ninety percent, not “some,” of the flu vaccine available contains full levels of the mercury-based preservative thimerosal. It should be pointed out that thimerosal was never tested or approved by the FDA, yet it’s used in vaccines.

    The autism rate of one in 110 is the most recent from the CDC, but it doesn’t give us the current rate. One in 110 was announced in 2009, but it was based on studies of eight year olds done in 2006. Those kids are teenagers now. The CDC hasn’t updated the numbers since.

    If officials wanted to end the controversy over vaccines and autism, they could do it by calling for a study comparing the health of vaccinated and unvaccinated children. If one percent of children who’ve never been vaccinated also have autism, the proof would be there for all to see. With so many parents now exempting their kids from vaccinations, the study group is out there. No official is willing to call for such a study.

    The lifetime cost of $3.2 million per person with autism is probably a gross underestimate. That figure comes from Michael Ganz’s Harvard study done in 2006. I contacted Ganz at the time he said that figure was conservative. Others put lifetime cost for one individual with autism at between $5 and $10 million.

    We continue to dismiss the link between vaccines and autism using industry-funded studies. Each of the 14 major studies used to disprove a link between our ever-expanding vaccine schedule is tied to the vaccine makers. Hundreds of individuals at the CDC have waivers because of their connections to the vaccine industry. The last head of the CDC, Dr. Julie Gerberding, a long time denier of any link between vaccines and autism, is now head of the vaccine division at Merck Pharma.

    Dr. Thomas Insel, head of the IACC, the committee created by Congress to study autism, has said that 80 percent of Americans with autism are under of the age of 18. He’s warned us that we need to “prepare for a million people who may be in need of significant care.”

    Few people have shown concern over this approaching tidal wave of young adults with autism. The only thing for sure about autism is that vaccines don’t cause it.

    Anne Dachel, Media editor: Age of Autism

  41. Please do more research. The 2009 Flu Season featured 75mcg of Thimerisol in Prenatal Vaccines if a mother chose to follow recommendations (2H1N1 & 1Seasonal) and wasn’t extremely dedicated to hunting down a Thimerisol-free brand. Then the largest group of Thimerisol-free shots were recalled (SanofiPastuer). What good is it to mostly remove it from the Infant Shot schedule if you triple down prenatally??? Infants are largely still Thimerisol exposed in Utero.

    Secondly, this article ignores the work on exposure to aluminum, both through IV medical fluids & vaccines. And the potential
    role of the XMRV retrovirus.

    I wouldn’t care if most of the parents I knew didn’t deal with Autism, Asperger’s or SPD.

  42. Sandra wrote:

    “Clearing lead from the blood and brains of children was made possible by two public policy decisions: the 1977 decision to phase lead out of house paint, where it was used as a pigment, and the 1990 decision to phase lead out of gasoline, where it was used as an antiknock additive. Those accomplishments, carried out over the objections, threats, denials, and obfuscations of the lead industry, are considered triumphs of public health”

    If the growing numbers of vaccines being given our children is a significant contributing factor to the inexplicable increase in childhood development problems .. common sense suggests the same public health bureaucracy that approves and recommends vaccines .. will resort to the very same “objections, threats, denials and obfuscations” the lead industry employed to keep lead in both gasoline and paints.

  43. Causation is everything and when we burden our children in every way it’s really difficult to pinpoint and lay the blame. Start taking the most harmful and KNOWN toxins immediately out after it is determined to be harmful – period.

    Thank you for a well article. People need to jump up and contain all this harmful mercury as they have proven it is a Neurotoxin. Nothing new and while it mirrors lead – which is banned, I can’t wonder why we continue to allow the harm. (Politicians & Big Pharma = interchangeable)

  44. — I Sandra just thought of a title for your forthcoming book: Your Poisoned Child! That should get the Mom’s out there’s attention. Our main problem in this country is that we are asleep, unconscious of the harm being done to us. Silent Spring was the first jolt about our collective poisoning. We need another shock to wake us up.

  45. I just had an editorial second thought about the title of your new book. Maybe Your Poisoned Child is too shocking? Perhaps Our poisoned Children would go down easier? Of course your publisher and his/her editors will have their own ideas about how to launch this blockbuster!

  46. One thing is for sure, this book is going to top the best seller list. I guarantee it. The time is right for this bombshell. The Japanese nuclear disaster will prime people’s minds with concern about poisoning.

  47. The research studies cited, the stories told, the perspectives held, the call, the plea made for change, are those I most certainly identify with and are the very perspectives that define the APOGEEâ„¢ Learning mission… the health and well being of our children … A most heartfelt plea… As an Educational Consultant/Therapist, in private practice since 1983, I have lived and witnessed the ravages of toxic pesticides and toxic chemicals on the growth, development, learning and behavior of children, teens and adults. I am presently a member of the Orangetown Environmental Committee, Orangetown, New York, and will be presenting a workshop on May 18, 2011 – “The Health Threats of Toxic Pesticide Use on Lawns” (http://www.theapogeeforum.blogspot.com)

  48. Brillant thinking on the tasks palced before us as parents, rather than corporations taking responsibility. However I would like to staTe that your concern or compassion for children loses credibility, when you generalize about disabilities using outdated terms, and judgement about how children with autism or intellectual disabilty affect yours and others or how the children are costing the econonmy. I would sayc that again, the parents nor the children are responsible for what is happening to them.
    Let’s leave the kids out and tacle the real burden-poison.

  49. Quotes from a 1991 International Joint Commission meeting:

    Dr. Jim Ludwig — “As a society we must be willing to ask such agonizing questions as ‘What does a downward shift in intelligence of babies born to exposed mothers and the related health care costs mean to society? Do the recent general societal patterns of increased female and male human infertility, merging of human sexual identities, increasingly poor performance in schools by recent generations, increases in autoimmune diseases, etc. have anything to do with lipophilic toxic chemicals? If so, where in society should the costs of these damages be born?'”

    Dr. Jack Vallentyne (Co-Chair of the IJC Science Advisory Board), referring to “persistent toxic substances, particularly organochlorines” — “The evidence suggests that these chemicals may be whittling away the innate potential within our species to learn and think.”

    These quotes, along with a great deal of information similar to what is in this article was in our book, Lake Superior: Story and Spirit, in 1997. It is very frustrating that, just as the author pointed out regarding lead in paint, the information has been here for a long time, and more evidence is available all the time, yet the political battles continue to prevent us from being protected. We pointed out in our book that an “international agreement, the Declaration of Helsinki, adopted by the World Medical Assembly in 1964, establishes a standard of conduct in human experiments. [As in the Nuremberg Code] the experiment may not proceed without voluntary consent of the subject. Voluntary consent is also required by USFDA regulations. Has anyone ever asked you if they could dump toxic chemistry into your food, air, water, body tissues, and children? Where can a person go to revoke consent never given? Why, at the dawning of the twenty-first century, are we still struggling to get such fundamental ethical principles as reverse onus, ‘first do no harm,’ and voluntary consent applied to the runaway, uncontrolled experiments of commerce?”

  50. I just listened to Dr Steingraber at a local elementary school and have been blown away with the wealth of information I have discovered about environmental pollution. I am deeply disturbed. I have been reading lately about different food “lifestyles” such as Weston A Price ad Nourishing Traditions, Primal diets, GAPS, SCD, Real Food, etc. But this goes so much deeper than just what to eat.
    I could eat the perfect diet and still be exposed. “I am not a HEPA filter” has to be my favorite line. It is painfully true. No matter how careful we are, our children will be exposed. I can follow my child around the house and try to catch every fall and then, like tonight, my toddler can climb up on the couch right in front of me and proceed to do a header off the edge of it. RIGHT IN FRONT OF ME! If I can’t prevent THAT, how can I prevent their exposure to parts per million???
    I don’t believe in “big government” but I do believe that this is one area in which the government should step in and stop the madness. Literally and figuratively. We as parents must step up to the plate. If we can find the time to attend every ball game and art show and concert, we can certainly find the time to do something to change the fate of our environment. This is so much bigger than simply “global warming.” This is global poisoning. I’d like to get off that path RIGHT NOW.

  51. Thank you so much for your comprehensive look at the environmental factors that can impair children’s development. As a pregnant Mom-to-be, I worry about my child’s ability to adapt and grow in this challenging environment (as well as how to deal well with others of possibly more erratic and violent behaviors).

  52. For more of the engaging writing, and thought-provoking arguments offered by this article, read Dr. Steingraber’s new book Raising Elijah. It presents the heart-stopping challenge to see chemical reform and toxic trespass as requiring a modern day abolitionist stand, our time’s equivalent to the moral imperative to abolish slavery in the 19th century. We are indeed being poisoned and it is time to work together to abolish carcinogens and endocrine disrupters as acceptable components of our economic system.

  53. Rebecca — Thanks for pointing out that Sandra has already written the book I kept urging her to write in previous comments! Now I can go out and get it now…

  54. I can also highly recommend Raising Elijah, along with Dr. Steingraber’s other books, Raising Faith and Living Downstream.

  55. I’ve seen articles about some of these, but the vaccine-to-autism connection isn’t supported by current research.

  56. Thank you for this article! It was pretty well developed AND there is still so much that could have been covered! I applaud you for making the effort! The jump from the use of pesticides in agricultural foods to petrochemicals used in artificial food dyes and preservatives could have been easily made. Also, I have to wonder about the mercury in coal by product. When speaking to adults that lived through the 40s and 50s one would know that there were not any filters put over smoke stacks then as we do now. Also, they could tell you stories about smog that covered towns from cars and factories, as well a fine layer of coal dust covering most things. So while steps have been taken in recent decades to change this there seems to be even more chemicals in our food supply that I think should be of greater concern. Look at what is being fed to our children in school! Nothing organic or chemical free like it was 30-40years ago that is for sure! I also felt you might have shied away from the mercury in the vaccines. I know it is a hot topic but you forget also, that there are heavy metals and preservatives in vaccines that are just as worrisome and toxic. We are talking formaldehyde and aluminum being injected into newborns and pregnant mothers!!! I have to agree with Paul King PhD and his comments. We can not dismiss mercury as a culprit because it is still used in other vaccines. Removing it from 1 vaccine doesn’t rid everyone from being exposed to it. Thanks again for your hard work…I really hope to see changes in the future about what is sprayed on our furniture and what is added to food.

  57. It’s not just the environment poisoning our children! How toxic do you think the air is in our own homes using all the household cleaners that have been proven to contain carcinogenics?! Check out this site i recently found http://www.nomorewalmart.com we can at least make the air less toxic indoors where our children spend most of their time!

  58. Many good points. Also consider that many schools have been built on TOXIC land because it had been cheaper for Cities/towns to afford. Recent legislation by groups such as Toxic Actions in the Northeast have protected new schools from such harmful practices.

    Right, there is no clear evidence. Some of the studies with ethylmercury prove this statement wrong. Lancaster amish of over 30,000 does not have autism (exception are those that were adopted). My neice and her brother both became damaged after their MMR and I know many families aflicted with similar harm. Its a cauldron pot of many ingredients and some have weaker immune systems and become damaged. I have worked on legislation to oust the ‘trace amount’ (enough for a 250lb baby…right, there aren’t any of those) and it never passes.

    Take on ingredient out of the cauldron – ethylmercury. Say your child is allergic and put it on their medical records from birth. Actually, put it on grandmas too – because they are forced to get flu shots and have a huge build up of this neurotoxin. Altzheimers is also up over 500%.

  59. Wonderful article and an amazing leader. Thank you for publishing her work and helping us to move toward a world where we can protect our children and our earth!

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  61. ignacio perez de vargas etposena / I still don’t get it. All nuts have around the same fat content per serving. To say the pistachio has half the calories of other nuts based on the paistachio is half the size of other nuts. So, 30 pistachio = 28 almonds = 22 cashews = 100 calories. I can eat pistachios in a gulp, almonds on the other hand would take a lot longer and be more filling. Don’t get me wrong, I LOVE stachios, but this info is misleading.

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