Video drives home impact of cumulative environmental toxic exposures on children’s brain development

November 20, 2014

A new video co-produced by a Simon Fraser University researcher highlights how low-level exposures to prevalent environmental toxicants have adverse life-long effects on children’s intellectual and behavioural development.

Bruce Lanphear, a well-published expert on children’s environmental health, is unveiling the video “Little Things Matter” at a first-of-its-kind conference at the University of Ottawa, Nov. 20-21.

“There is strong evidence that learning disabilities and lower IQ scores can be attributed to extremely low levels of exposure to toxic metals like lead and mercury, persistent toxins such as polychlorinated biphenyl (PCBs), and other toxins including organophosphate (OP) pesticides and compounds used as flame-retardants. These toxins are common in our daily environments,” says Lanphear, an SFU health sciences professor.

Toxin exposures cumulative

With support from the SFU Community Engagement Fund, Lanphear has produced a short video showing the cumulative impact of ongoing toxin exposures. Using data available from the United States, “Little Things Matter” illustrates how widespread exposure to brain-damaging toxins, such as lead and flame-retardants, can increase the number of U.S. children who are challenged, from six million to more than 11 million.

“Children are exposed to many toxins and dozens of untested chemicals all the time. These chemicals can be biologically active at very low levels. While we do not have similar research data here in Canada, the pattern is likely similar. We can no longer ignore the impact toxins have on the developing brain and children’s ability to learn,” says Lanphear.

“The message in “Little Things Matter” is clear: the developing fetus and child are particularly vulnerable to toxic exposures, and the consequences of inadequate protection can be significant,” says Erica Phipps, executive director for the Canadian Partnership for Children’s Health and Environment (CPCHE).

“Though health-care providers commonly discuss risks associated with smoking, diet and alcohol consumption with pregnant patients, they are less likely to broach the topic of exposure to lead or mercury, let alone bisphenol A (BPA), pesticides or flame-retardants. As such, we are missing important opportunities for prevention.”

Lanphear hopes this video will serve as a catalyst for regulations aimed at reducing the exposure of toxic chemicals in the environment.

“Because low levels of exposure can have such far-reaching effects, industry should be required to prove that the chemicals they use are not toxic before they enter the market. With informed policies, we could have a country in which the rate of learning and behavioural problems would start to decline and more children would excel.”

The facts:

  • The impact of toxins on the developing brain is permanent.
  • Children who are more heavily exposed to toxins will not reach the same peak cognitive ability as those who have lower exposures. At the same time, studies have shown that there are no safe levels of exposure to toxic chemicals, such as lead and flame-retardants
  • Although many, or even most chemicals are harmless, the cumulative impact of exposures to three or four toxins is overwhelming.
  • In Canada and the U.S, chemicals are used in consumer products and released into the environment before they are tested for toxic effects on the developing brain.

Related articles:

SFU News May 28, 2014 Flame retardent linked to lower IQs

SFU News March 21, 2014 Austistic behaviours linked to banned pesticides

SFU News Sept. 20, 2013 World's first online environmental atlas

SFU News Oct. 6, 2011 Sterling winner fights to reduce lead