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The Toxins That Threaten Our Brains
Leading scientists recently identified a dozen chemicals as being responsible for widespread behavioral and cognitive problems. But the scope of the chemical dangers in our environment is likely even greater. Why children and the poor are most susceptible to neurotoxic exposure that may be costing the U.S. billions of dollars and immeasurable peace of mind.
Forty-one million IQ points. That’s what Dr. David Bellinger determined Americans have collectively forfeited as a result of exposure to lead, mercury, and organophosphate pesticides. In a 2012 paper published by the National Institutes of Health, Bellinger, a professor of neurology at Harvard Medical School, compared intelligence quotients among children whose mothers had been exposed to these neurotoxins while pregnant to those who had not. Bellinger calculates a total loss of 16.9 million IQ points due to exposure to organophosphates, the most common pesticides used in agriculture. Last month, more research brought concerns about chemical exposure and brain health to a heightened pitch. Philippe Grandjean, Bellinger’s Harvard colleague, and Philip Landrigan, dean for global health at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in Manhattan, announced to some controversy in the pages of a prestigious medical journal that a “silent pandemic” of toxins has been damaging the brains of unborn children. The experts named 12 chemicals—substances found in both the environment and everyday items like furniture and clothing—that they believed to be causing not just lower IQs but ADHD and autism spectrum disorder. Pesticides were among the toxins they identified.
“Let’s go to the environmental crisis. There’s nobody around to bail you out. The externalities in this case are the fate of the species. If that’s disregarded in the operations of the market system, there’s nobody around who is going to bail you out from that. So this is a lethal externality. And the fact that it’s proceeding with no significant action being taken to do anything about it does suggest that Ernst Mayr actually had a point. It seems that there is something about us, our intelligence, which entails that we’re capable of acting in ways that are rational within a narrow framework but are irrational in terms of other long-term goals, like do we care what kind of a world our grandchildren will live in. And it’s hard to see much in the way of prospects for overcoming this right now, particularly in the United States. We are the most powerful state in the world, and what we do is vastly important. We have one of the worst records in this regard.”