Parents of a certain age remember the slogan, "a better world
through chemistry," in the 1950s and '60s, which promised new
compounds as the key to a life of luxury in a carefree future.
A couple of generations down the gene pool, those parents are
mostly grandparents and contemporary science is telling us that the
chemical cures to our ills and irritations may be worse than the
nuisances they were created to eliminate.
Making connections between our chemical frenemies and runaway
rates of developmental disabilities isn't just for tree-huggers and
hippies anymore. The link between toxins and the American pandemic
of autism, attention deficit disorders and allergies is moving into
the mainstream, say agencies supporting people with disabilities.
These agencies are trying to spread the word with pamphlets warning
women of childbearing age about chemicals hiding in their
cupboards. They're sponsoring teleconferences highlighting medical
breakthroughs about the way everyday substances alter the workings
of our brains and our genes.
Dr. Peter Orris, who co-authored an American Medical Association
resolution calling for federal reform on chemicals, says experts
are just beginning to connect the dots between chemicals and
"Many substances that we previously thought were toxic only at
higher levels, we are beginning to understand now in fact
incorporate in people's bodies," Orris said in a recent interview
with Chicago Parent. Orris is professor and chief of service in
Environmental and Occupational Medicine at the University of
Illinois Medical Center at Chicago School of Public Health.
This generation of children is exposed to an enormous number of
toxins before they are even born, says Cindy Schneider, medical
director of the Center for Autism Research and Education and the
mother of two children with autism.
"Doctors and medical researchers are just now beginning to
realize the cumulative effects of the many, many toxins to which we
are exposed to each day," she says.
But purging chemicals from life can be a hard pill to
The culprits are so much a part of our everyday world, it
boggles the mind to imagine how we could cope without them. How are
we going to keep our clothes fresh without the dry cleaners and
fabric softeners? Despite efforts of the past couple of years to
wipe out lead-laden toys, they keep rearing their heads. Wood in
some furniture, decks and swing sets continues to be treated with
The dinner table is teeming with toxins. Our favorite crystal
wine glasses, the wicks of the candles and imported ceramic bowls
are delivery systems for lead even before we put mercury-laden fish
on them. Switching to chicken? There's a 50-50 chance it's tainted
with arsenic. And when you eat with amalgam dental fillings, you're
shooting mercury into your brain with every chew, though experts
disagree on how much.
Try stepping out into the garden once the weather warms. You'll
breathe in the fertilizers growing your grass and weed killers
keeping those botanical bad boys at bay. And if Fido has been
squirted with a flea-repelling capsule, don't turn to him for
Isn't the EPA making sure we don't encounter chemicals in
amounts that can harm us? Not really, Schneider and Orris say.
Business interests commonly influence the levels of toxicity
categorized as safe by federal regulatory agencies, Orris says.
Lead, for example, is known to be toxic at well below current blood
levels, Schneider adds.
"More and more I find it disconcerting because, always, the EPA
guidelines are a compromise between what's good for people and
what's good for the economy and what's practical for business, and
sometimes, we lose, frankly," Schneider says.
Taking on toxins
Cathy Ficker Terrill, of Elmhurst, took on the overwhelming task
of detoxifying her family's living space. When Terrill started
tracking her 4-year-old daughter Beth's meltdowns, she saw how they
came in tandem with home projects: When they resurfaced the
driveway, when they scrubbed with ammonia-based cleaners, when the
lawn service sprayed the lawn.
Terrill and her husband took extreme tactics. They built a new
house as a fortress against Beth's neurological-based allergens.
The house has all-wood floors and low-chemical paint that was baked
on the walls to minimize chemical emissions. The family stopped
using perfumed personal products, banished pesticides and
fertilizers from the yard and stopped cleaning with chemicals. Now,
they just use vinegar and baking soda.
Terrill, a past president of the Illinois chapter of the
American Association on Intellectual and Developmental
Disabilities, took the podium at last fall's Public Health Forum on
Toxic Chemicals, Disabilities and Policy Solutions in Chicago. The
forum was co-sponsored with the Illinois Public Interest Research
She wishes she would have stepped off the chemical carousel
before she got pregnant. She believes her daughter's allergies were
borne of things Beth experienced in the womb-and the science is on
her side. She and her daughter are now experimenting with
bio-monitoring, which measures body toxins.
"It's time we should look at the pollutants we put in our bodies,"
Summing it up
"Synergistic toxicity" is how Schneider sums up typical contact
with common chemicals. "One plus one plus one may add up to 300,
3,000, 3 million," she says.
The equation starts with genetic programming, crafted by the
body of a mom and dad who have lived in close contact with
questionable chemicals for much of their lives. Add exposure to
toxins in the womb, where unborn babies can be harmed by small
amounts of toxins that would have little or no impact on children
or adults. Then figure in the multiple chemical risk factors kids
encounter as an infant and toddler.
Other things people put in their bodies-what they eat and
medications they take-play a big role in how well the system can
cope with the harmful chemicals it comes up against. Inherited
genetic ability to fight off chemicals will be a driving factor in
the future for studying risk factors for autism and other
neurological disorders, Schneider says.
On her most dangerous list are a trifecta of prolific
toxins-lead, mercury and pesticides.
Every week, new science links the increase in exposure to toxic
chemicals to serious chronic health problems. Yet, the vast
majority of the 80,000 chemicals uses in commerce have never been
screened for human health impacts, according to information from
Cathy Ficker Terrill says she figured it out the hard way.
"Parents of children with learning disabilities need to take a
long hard look at their environment and the chemicals that are all
around us and start making some critical connections," she
The federal government banned lead paints decades ago. Yet
lead's legacy of poison still lingers in places people never
suspect, including in the water faucet.
Water in more than 800 cities has lead levels exceeding EPA action
levels and more than half of all U.S. towns have lead-lined or
lead-soldered pipes, Schneider says.
"There are many, many parents who are just simply drinking and
cooking with tap water that's supposed to be safe," she says.
Scientists know lead can cause mental retardation, developmental
delays, microcephlia, irritably and tremors, miscarriages and still
births. Lead is especially brutal on young children and fetuses,
which absorb four times the amount of lead as adults. Lead
concentrations in the fetus are the same as in the mother and can
linger as long as 20 years in bone tissue.
Inside developing brains, lead tangles crucial nerve circuits in
the prefrontal cortex, hippocampus and cerebellum, "similar to what
is seen in Alzheimer's," Schneider says.
Children with blood lead content at "acceptable" levels had
lower IQs, she says. Reading and writing scores were about half
those of other students. It compromises functions in the prefrontal
cortex of the brain, spawning impairments in impulse and mood
Studies show higher rates of autism in kids with higher lead
levels. In screening every child she treats for mineral
deficiencies, Schneider finds this to be a common thread in
children with autism.
About 90 percent of American households use pesticides to chase
pesky bugs and critters out of their houses and yards. In a recent
analysis, Schneider found that 20 out of 20 newborns tested
positive for organophosphate pesticides.
Studies show that prenatal exposure to pesticides are at the
root of memory deficits, reaction time, childhood hypertension and
delays of about four years in understanding spatial relationships
like elementary geometry. A growing body's ability to clear itself
of toxins from pesticides depends largely on its ability to
generate a certain enzyme tagged the PON1, which is also involved
in using good cholesterol and reducing inflammation.
Some genetic codes give a child a very robust ability to clear
pesticides, while others inherit very weak pesticide-fighting gene
programming. In her research, Schneider found, children with autism
tended to inherit the latter gene configurations at a higher than
expected rate in the U.S. To make matters worse, the latest studies
show, babies don't make any of this pesticide-protecting enzyme at
all during their first year and a half.
Doctors now link poor PON1 enzyme production with autism in the
United States. Some autism experts believe today's babies are
inheriting weak PON1 producing genes because of parents' lifetime
of exposure to harmful chemicals.
By now, every parent knows that eating too much fish puts people
and fetuses at risk for mercury poisoning. Yet as sushi grows in
popularity among young adults, 8 percent of women of childbearing
age are eating mercury-laden sushi at higher than safe levels set
by the EPA. Eating three servings a month of any fish multiplies
the body's mercury level by four.
Mercury also comes into our bodies through substances as
deceptively benign as fabric softeners, mascara, fungicides in
paint made before 1990 and even in common dental fillings. Most
families have no idea that, when a compact fluorescent light bulb
breaks, they need to open the windows and leave the house for 15
"There's a certain protocol for cleaning them up and it
certainly doesn't involve a vacuum cleaner," Schneider says.
When the U.S. government outlawed lead paint in 1978,
manufacturers started using mercury instead. It was perfect for
drying up mold and mildew for bathrooms, basement and kitchen
walls. Though the U.S. government banned mercury-laced paint in
1990, there are still "many, many homes with that kind of paint to
this day," Schneider says.
Levels of mercury in moms with fillings in their teeth made with
amalgam-the most commonly used fillings' substance, containing a
mixture of mercury with at least one other metal-match exactly with
hair samples in infants. Normal chewing in one day can pump as much
as 43 micrograms of mercury straight through the olfactory canal
and into the brain through the skull.
Exposure to mercury is medically linked to violent allergic
reactions, like those sweeping through the latest generations.
Where lead levels in moms and babies are about the same, fetal
levels of mercury often outpace those of the mother.
"For some reason, mercury actively crosses the placenta beyond the
rate you would expect," Schneider says.
The solution is to opt for ceramic dental fillings, but it can
be a costly choice because most dental insurance plans still only
pay for mercury-based amalgam.
Mercury may be the most controversial of common toxins because of
its use in childhood vaccines. Over the past decade, mercury
contact in vaccines has dropped, but the H1N1 and seasonal flu
vaccines include up to 25 micrograms of mercury.
"Although I'm thrilled they decreased the amounts of Thimerosol
used in vaccines, I think until we get to 0, we will not have
solved the problem,' she says.
And doctors' post-vaccination orders can compound the problem.
Acetaminophen-commonly recommended after injections-actually boost
mercury's toxicity, making it harder for the body to clear toxins,
Robyn Monaghan is a mother and long-time journalist.
See more of Robyn's stories here.
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