A new study examining possible links between exposure to chemicals used in everyday products and learning and developmental issues strikes a personal chord with leading advocates for the disabled.
Could the autism, cerebral palsy, or other learning and developmental issues these individuals and their families face be associated with the toxic burdens in their bodies? Could the toxins in their bodies impact the fate of any children they hope to have in the future?
Those are the issues the new study, "Mind, Disrupted", wanted to explore.
The study's release on Thursday coincided with a Senate hearing about the public's exposure to chemicals and the country's outdated Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA).
In the new study, sponsored by the Learning and Developmental Disabilities Initiative, 12 "leaders and self-advocates" from the learning and developmental disabilities community volunteered to have their bodies tested for 89 chemicals known or suspected of sabotaging the development of humans' brains and nervous systems.
The chemicals included bisphenol A (BPA), lead, mercury, organochlorine pesticides, polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs), perchlorate, perfluorinated compounds (PFCs), and triclosan.
The study found:
• A total of 61 chemicals in the 12 participants;
• Each participant had at least 26 chemicals in their bodies; some had as many as 38 chemicals;
• 16 chemicals were detected in all the participants, including BPA, mercury, lead, polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs), perfluorinated compounds (PFCs), perchlorate, and organochlorine pesticides;
• 11 participants had detectable levels of triclosan, which has been found to disrupt thyroid hormone function in rats. This chemical is used in antibacterial soaps, toothpaste, and other personal care products;
• 10 participants had mercury levels above the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) average. Studies have linked exposure to this heavy metal with altered memory and motor function, and learning disabilities;
• 8 participants had a brominated flame retardant known as Deca in their bodies. Prenatal exposure to this chemical, used in electronics and furniture upholstery, has been linked with impaired fine motor skills and attention. Elevated levels of this chemical in umbilical cord blood has also been associated with lower scores on multiple developmental tests in children;
• 3 participants had lead concentrations above the CDC average. Lead is a heavy metal used in electronics, PVC plastics, and cosmetics. Studies have linked prenatal exposure to lead with premature births, learning difficulties, and decreased intelligence.
"I was very shocked to see how many toxic chemicals were in my body," said participant Jeff Sell, who has 15-year-old twin sons with autism. He is the Vice-President of Public Policy for the Autism Society (ASA). "I started going green before it was fashionable and I watch what I put in my body and what I eat. I didn't think my toxic exposure would be as high as was."
"These chemicals are not supposed to end up in our bodies," said participant Cathy Ficker Terrill, president and CEO of the Ray Graham Association for People with Disabilities. Her daughter, Beth Terrill, who also participated in the study, has a developmental disability and chemical sensitivities.
"Having a child with complex allergies made (my family) very interested in learning about toxic chemicals," Ficker Terrill said. "We were shocked by our chemical body burden results because we have been living in an allergy-free house since Beth was 8."
Researchers billed this analysis as the first biomonitoring study that exclusively focused on members of the learning and developmental disabilities community.
"Its goal is to identify the presence of toxic chemicals that are associated with disrupting healthy neurological development in people whose lives have been directly touched by learning and developmental disabilities," researchers said of the study.
The study, however, did not attempt to "correlate the presence, type or severity of a disability," researchers said. "Given the current state of scientific knowledge, no one can say that an exposure to a specific chemical causes a specific developmental disability."
But not everyone is willing to be so reserved in their conclusions.
"The overwhelming evidence shows that certain environmental exposures can contribute to lifelong learning and development disorders," said Dr. Ted Schettler, Science Director for the Science and Environmental Health Network.
Consider some of the chemicals researchers found in all the participants' bodies and their possible associations with learning and developmental issues:
• BPA: This chemical is widely used in such products as baby bottles and the lining of metal food and beverage cans. Prenatal exposure to BPA has been linked with altered behaviors in two-year-old children, especially girls.
• Lead: Studies have linked exposure to this heavy metal with premature births, learning difficulties, and decreased intelligence.
• Perchlorate: This chemical is used in rocket fuel and airbags. Studies have linked exposure to perchlorate with reductions of iodine in breast milk and neonatal thyroid hormone levels in rats. In humans, some research suggests that maternal exposure to perchlorate during pregnancy could possibly cause abnormal fetal development.
• Four organochlorine pesticides, including DDT, which was banned in the United States in 1972. Exposure to these pesticides has been linked with decreased metal function, including memory, attention, and verbal skills in children. Most of the research was done in children raised in agriculture areas;
Discovering these and other toxins in their bodies frightened and angered many of the study's participants.
"It is disturbing that even though it's been a long time since DDT has been banned as a pesticide in the U.S., it still exists and builds up in our bodies. It's disturbing that it has that kind of staying power long term," said participant Vernell Jessie, when she learned her body was contaminated with it.
"I do have an 18-year-old and I figure that whatever might be going on in my body might certainly be going on in her body," added Jessie, a longtime disability advocate. "It's very disturbing to think that a chemical that was banned decades ago may still be taking up residence in the body of my child."
Participant Laura Abalafia is worried what effects the lead and other toxins found in her body could have on the baby she hopes to have in the future.
"I was surprised about how sad I felt after receiving my results," said Abalafia, national coordinator with the Learning and Developmental Disabilities Initiative. "I want to have a child someday soon, and now I know that this extremely vulnerable little person will be exposed to some very toxic substances."
"Everybody wants to make sure a baby can thrive in a safe and healthy environment, but so many everyday products contain toxic chemicals like lead," she added. "Even children's toys and some candies have lead in them, so we really have no understanding of how to make safe purchases and protect our children or unborn from some very serious threats."
"Federal policy needs to change"
Abelafia and others involved with the project say Congressional leaders can take a big step toward reducing the public's exposure to dangerous chemicals by revamping the antiquated Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA).
"Federal policy needs to change to reflect 21st Century science -- including the importance of critical windows of development, mixtures of chemicals, and low-dose exposures -- to ensure current and future generations reach their fullest potential," the study said.
"Scientific evidence is piling up, revealing how chemicals are contributing to the alarming increases we are seeing in childhood leukemia, learning disabilities, reproductive disorders and other health problems," said Charlotte Brody, RN, National Field Director of the Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families coalition and lead author of the report. "But meanwhile the federal law that is supposed to protect us has stayed frozen in time."
Both the Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families Coalition and the Learning and Developmental Disabilities Initiative have called on Congress to strengthen the country's chemical laws. Their recommendations include:
• Immediately take action against the worst chemicals now on the market;
• Require manufacturers to disclose basic information about possible heath hazards associated with their chemicals;
• Protect the most vulnerable from exposure to harmful chemicals;
• Hold industry responsible for demonstrating chemical safety;
• Promote safe, "green" alternatives;
• Ensure consumers' "right to know" by requiring labeling of chemical ingredients in products;
• Use the best scientific methods to determine the safety of chemicals on the market.
Former Atlanta Falcons football player David Iron, who has a diagnosed learning disability, supports these measures. "I want to know more about these chemicals that get into our bodies and how these chemicals might be hurting us and making it harder to achieve our goals," said Irons, who participated in the study.
"As a professional football player, I have to be as mentally and physically fit as possible -- it's my job," he added. "I want to know how to avoid toxic chemicals for myself, but I also really want little kids not to be exposed to these chemicals, especially if sometimes the chemicals could harm their bodies or brains and make it harder for them to learn."
The American Chemistry Council (ACC), a trade association for the chemical industry, has downplayed recent studies that found links between BPA, phthalates, and other chemicals with developmental and health issues. The ACC says the chemicals are safe for everyday use.
Congressional leaders in Washington, D.C. are now debating concerns about the publics' exposure to toxic chemicals and the country's outdated chemical safety laws. Those talks opened Thursday during a Senate Environment and Public Works Subcommittee.
Weeks before the hearing started, Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) and Rep. Bobby Rush (D-IL) called on their colleagues to toughen the TSCA.
"The use of chemicals is pervasive in our modern society and, when properly tested and used, they improve the quality of life for families here and throughout the world," said Rush, chairman of the Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Commerce, Trade and Consumer Protection. "But just because chemicals have value, does not mean they are always beneficial to our health, particularly the health and maturation of young children and those whose health has already been compromised."
"As we work to reform TSCA, I will continue to vigorously prod industry to seek out and invest in the development of safer, more viable alternatives to hazardous chemicals and substances," Rush added.
There's another benefit of revamping the TSCA, researchers point out. It could reduce the country's burgeoning health care costs.
"We could cut the health costs of childhood disabilities and disease by billions of dollars every year by minimizing contaminants in the environment," said Dr. Phil Landrigan of the Children's Environmental Health Center at Mount Sinai School of Medicine. "Investing in our children's health is both cost-effective and the right thing to do."
Disability Advocates 'Shocked' at Their Levels of Toxic Chemical Exposure...