It’s not just your imagination: globally, the rates of autism, ADD, ADHD and other neurological disabilities are in fact going up, even when correcting for factors like increased accuracy of diagnosis. Researchers are calling this a “silent pandemic,” noting that the global scope of the issue indicates the need for a global team to fix it, as without worldwide efforts, we may never fully understand how and why rates of cognitive disabilities are climbing. Now, we have another important piece of the puzzle: the chemicals around us appear to be a major factor.
In 2006, Harvard researchers undertook a study to learn more about the links between chemical pollutants, fetal exposure and the development of neurological disabilities. They found five chemicals — lead, methylmercury, polychlorinated biphenyls, arsenic and toluene — with a strong link to such disabilities. This news might not surprise you — we’ve known about the risks of lead, for example, for years. Their research confirmed that exposure to these chemicals in pregnancy can substantially increase the risk of neurological disabilities, as they can interfere with the formation of the brain and nervous system.
In a followup study, researchers have added even more chemicals to the list. They used epidemiological studies to identify manganese, fluoride, chlorpyrifos, dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane, tetrachloroethylene and the polybrominated diphenyl ethers, and strongly suspect that more hazardous chemicals haven’t been discovered yet. Each entry on this list reflects a painstaking overview of existing documentation, data on various populations, correction for a variety of variables and patient review to demonstrate a connection between a given chemical compound and an increase in disabilities. Such studies are time-consuming and costly, but critical.
Around the world, children experience a higher rate of neurodevelopmental disabilities that they did previously, an indicator that something is changing. The most compelling evidence of change, of course, is the rise of industry worldwide, including heavily polluting industries, which generate source pollution in addition to waste that needs to be transferred to offsite locations for processing and disposal. Poor regulation of pollution and industrial waste, scientists contend, is creating a global epidemic of serious disabilities, leading to significant health problems for children now and in future generations.
For example, Kettleman City, Calif., has been plagued with repeated cases of developmental and neurological disabilities clearly linked to fetal exposure — most probably to industrial chemicals found in a dump near the region. The children of Kettleman City, with their higher rate of cleft lip and palate, Down syndrome and other disabilities, represent statistical points in a growing map unfurling across the world that shows the high cost of industry. As in other regions of the world where such disabilities occur at a rate much higher than the rest of the population, Kettleman City is primarily low-income and inhabited by racial minorities.
With more and more research supporting the hypothesis that fetal exposure to industrial chemicals is leading to a global increase in neurological disabilities, it’s also clear that race and class play additional roles that need to be considered as well. Regions like Kettleman City are often viewed as easy places to locate industrial waste and polluting factories under the assumption that residents lack the education, clout, or will to organize against polluting industries — tighter regulation across the board to address these issues must play a critical role in any attempt to fight the global pandemic of neurodevelopmental diabilities.
Photo credit: Climate & Ecosystems Change Adaptation.
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