Project TENDR: Preventing Toxic Chemical Risks

What’s the biggest new word in environmental health? Right now, it’s the consensus statement from Project TENDR: Targeting Environmental NeuroDevelopment Risks. Project TENDR is a coalition of medical professionals, medical and public health professional organizations, doctors, nurses, and environmental health advocates. And, we’ve all come together – leaders of our organizations, heads of academic departments, editors of scientific journals, renowned scientists—to bring a message to the public, loud and clear: 

Toxic chemicals are harming our health, and most especially the brain development and function of our children! And, we can do something to stop the madness!

Or, in the language of the TENDR experts: “Children in America today are at unacceptably high risk of developing neurodevelopmental disorders that affect the brain and nervous system including autism, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, intellectual disabilities and other learning and behavioral disabilities. These are complex disorders with multiple causesgenetic, social and environmental. The contribution of toxic chemicals to these disorders can be prevented.”

TENDR experts don't leave us guessing about which chemicals might be well-known culprits. This group of scientific researchers, doctors, and nurses spotlights some chemicals for which we already know enough to ban or severely limit their use:

TENDR graphic

Organophosphate pesticides – this class of nasty neurotoxic insect-killing chemicals are still used on a wide variety of crops, on lawns and golf courses, and in pet flea and tick collars. This is despite evidence in children that prenatal exposures are associated with long-term (possibly lifetime) functional deficits in memory and IQ, and behavioral problems such as ADHD-like symptoms and autism spectrum disorder. For adults such as field workers, acute high-dose exposures to organophosphate (OP) pesticides causes muscle spasms, confusion, dizziness, loss of consciousness, seizures, abdominal cramps, vomiting, diarrhea, cessation of breathing, paralysis, and even death in extreme cases.

Since pesticides must be government-approved to be used, it should be a relatively easy thing for regulatory agencies to Take Action to ban these dangerous and outdated pesticides!

Polybrominated diphenyl ether (PBDE) flame retardants  PBDEs are persistent bioaccumulative and toxic industrial chemicals—a trifecta of disaster! When children are exposed prenatally, PBDE’s can cause neurodevelopmental effects including loss of IQ, hyperactivity, poor coordination, and attention problems. And, pregnant women and children are exposed, because the chemicals wind up in dust after leaching out of treated upholstered furniture, plastic casings for computers and televisions, carpet padding, baby products (e.g. changing pads and car seats), fabrics, and wire and cable coatings.

Jen CC and Baby

Regulatory agencies should Take Action to identify and ban these chemicals, particularly from products sold for use in homes, schools, and workplaces. Specifically:

  • The Consumer Products Safety Commission should ban halogenated flame retardants from consumer products, as requested in a 2015 petition by Earthjustice on behalf of medical professional associations, fire fighters, consumer organizations and others.
  • EPA should finalize and implement its 2012 proposed Significant New Use Rule for PBDEs (see EPA for details and updates).

In addition to Taking Action to support the above government policies, we can each Take Action to reduce dust exposures by encouraging frequent hand washing, wet mopping house dust, and vacuuming with a HEPA filter to reduce household dust and reduce contact with contaminated dust.

Air pollution from combustion – Prenatal and early childhood exposure to combustion products in air pollutants is associated with developmental delays, reduced IQ, symptoms of anxiety, depression and inattention. This is in addition to the well-known adverse health impacts from later-life exposures, including cardiovascular disease and premature death. It can also impair lung function and trigger an increase in the frequency and severity of asthma attacks and other respiratory disease, impacting the ability to attend and perform well at school and work. In 2013 the World Health Organization listed outdoor air pollution—especially the particulate matter—as carcinogenic to humans and linked to increased risk of lung cancer.

There are lots of ‘healthy’ reasons to support regulatory policies and practices that Take Action to clean up our air!

Lead – Honestly, lead just should not be a gigantic public health problem anymore, but it is! Scientists agree there is no safe level of lead exposure for fetal or early childhood development. Lead is bad for the brain, and exposures during prenatal development are especially harmful. Even small doses can lower IQ, impair learning, and lead to antisocial behavior. Yet we are not only suffering from continued exposures to historical uses such as in house paint and drinking water pipes, but continued uses in imported paints on furniture and children’s toys, imported leaded jewelry including for kids, and lead batteries. When will we stop poisoning the next generation?! 

Congress needs to Take Action to support the replacement and repair of lead-contaminated drinking water systems across the country that put children like those in Flint, Michigan in harm’s way. Congress also needs to support strengthening the Safe Drinking Water Act which protects water, and the Lead and Copper Rule that provides specific safeguards against lead. You can Take Action with NRDC to push Congress in the right direction!

Elyse O and Baby M

MercuryQuicksilver. It is highly neurotoxic, tremendously and permanently damaging to kid’s brains, particularly during prenatal exposures and even at very low levels. Along with lead, mercury is one of the most scientifically well-established neurodevelopmental toxicants in the world. It is nonetheless still used in consumer and industrial applications, including switches and relays, some skin-lightening creams and soaps, dental amalgams, and some thermometers and barometers. It is used as a catalyst in some plants that make chlorine and caustic soda. It is found in air emissions from coal-fired power plants and industrial boilers, many smelting processes, and cement plants. And, it is still used globally in small-scale gold mining.

A global mercury treaty that was finalized in 2013 (thanks in part to NRDC!) will go a long way to control and/or phase out many uses of mercury. But, governments around the world, including ours, will need to Take Action to make sure the treaty is fully implemented, and go farther and faster where possible.

Meanwhile we can Take Action to avoid personal exposure primarily by avoiding high-mercury fish species. Avoidance is especially important for women that are pregnant or planning to become pregnant, and for young children.

Phthalates – These toxic chemicals are used in plastics to make them soft and pliable and in fragrances. Phthalates wind up in many products including food packaging, medical devices, cosmetics, and building materials. In human studies prenatal exposures have been linked with ADHD-like behaviors, aggression and other behavioral problems, and lowered IQ. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved the use of thirty phthalates. Although it is great that the Consumer Products Safety Commission (CPSC) has banned six phthalates in children’s products (like bathtub duckies), this won’t be enough to reduce exposures to pregnant women and their fetus.

Katie R and Baby B

CPSC should finalize its 2015 proposed rule to ban additional highly toxic phthalates, as recommended by its Chronic Hazard Advisory Panel of scientific experts (see the CHAP 2014 report). CPSC should do this despite strong opposition from Exxon Mobil (see details in my blog).

FDA and the food industry should do as our 2016 petition to FDA asks, and Take Action to eliminate food uses of phthalates linked to adverse child neurodevelopment; this is very important since diet is a major exposure pathway.

To help reduce prenatal exposure, the CPSC, FDA, manufacturers and retailers should Take Action to remove phthalates that have been associated with adverse child neurodevelopment from consumer products used by women during pregnancy.

Chemical Reform 2016

By now, I’m sure you’re wondering if the newly passed Frank R. Lautenberg Chemical Safety for the 21st Century Act, which updated the old and dysfunctional 1976 Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) will help protect us from current and future neurotoxic chemicals. Yes, it provides EPA with some important new authority to review and regulate toxic chemicals for some consumer and industrial uses. For example:

  • It emphasizes consideration of vulnerable populations including pregnant women, infants, and children, when deciding whether or how to regulate a chemical;
  • It gives EPA new authority to review chemicals that are already in use;
  • It makes it easier for EPA to require new toxicity testing for chemicals;
  •  Although it considers costs in deciding how to regulate a chemical, cost analysis is no longer required when deciding whether or not to regulate a chemical;
  • It makes it easier for EPA to share industry-shielded Confidential Business Information (CBI) with state governments, medical professionals and first responders;
  •  It requires chemical manufacturers to pay user fees to EPA, to help implement these new rules.

Importantly, all this will only result in more health protections if EPA implements the Act fully using its new authorities to identify all available hazard and exposure information, and using health-protective defaults where data is absent or inadequate, with special considerations to protecting vulnerable populations.

While the above provisions will provide significant authority to EPA to Take Action, the new Act has some problems too. It curtails the ability of individual states to establish regulations that are more restrictive (i.e. more health protective) than federal regulations. Augh! This is a complicated provision that involves some exceptions and waivers and other twists and turns, so detail wonks should read up on it.

NRDC’s summary is that, “The bill will give EPA a clear and enforceable mandate to review chemicals, and will require EPA to evaluate chemicals based on their impact on human health. But it also contains loopholes and rollbacks sought by the chemical industry, including restricting the authority of states, and limiting the EPA from monitoring chemicals in imported products that may be a threat to public health. It will be some years before we know for sure how successful the bill will be at protecting the public. NRDC will press hard to ensure the strong implementation of this bill.”

Looking Forward

An integrated ‘All Hands on Deck’ approach will be needed, including regulatory, state-based, and market-based strategies, if we are to prevent future harm:

  • Regulators need to restrict toxic chemicals, take into account the special vulnerability of prenatal and early life developmental stages, consider the cumulative effect of exposure to many chemicals at once, and acknowledge the lack of any ‘safe level’ or threshold for neurodevelopmental toxicants.
  • Businesses and manufacturers need to identify, reduce, and replace neurodevelopmental toxicants in their supply chain and products.
  • Health professionals need to provide patient advice to avoid harmful chemical exposures.

The good news is that that if we take action to eliminate or reduce toxic chemical exposures, we can successfully protect healthy brain development.

Baby BR
Katie R

About the Authors

Jennifer Sass

Senior Scientist, Federal Toxics, Health and Food, Healthy People & Thriving Communities Program

Learning disabilities, developmental delay, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and autism spectrum disorder—these are all problems that kids suffer from today at higher rates than in the past. These diseases and their causes are complicated; like so many health issues, genetics and the environment both play roles, making the search for treatments and cures a challenge. But one answer is simple: we know that toxic chemicals are like a finger pushing down on the scale, increasing kid’s risks for these neurodevelopmental disorders—and if this weight was gone, we could lift a significant burden of these diseases off America’s children.

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