(Beyond Pesticides, February 9, 2010) In an innovative development that could transform the way Americans view the origins of learning and developmental disabilities, the national Learning and Developmental Disabilities Initiative (LDDI) released the first-ever biomonitoring report identifying toxic chemical pollution in people from the learning and developmental disability community. Mind, Disrupted: How Toxic Chemicals May Affect How We Think and Who We Are examines 61 toxic chemicals present in project participants in the context of rising rates of autism, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, and other learning and developmental disabilities.
In the U. S., 5-15% of children under age 18 are affected by learning and developmental disabilities. Reported cases of autism spectrum disorders have increased tenfold since the early 1990s. Based on current research, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) states that 1 in 110 eight-year-old children have autism in the United States.
Mind, Disrupted measured levels of a set of neurotoxic and endocrine-disrupting chemicals in the participants’ bodies. A growing body of peer-reviewed scientific research, including animal and human studies, shows that these chemicals can disrupt the development and functioning of the brain and nervous system. Eleven of the twelve study participants had detectable levels of triclosan in their bodies.
Research indicates that widespread use of triclosan causes a number of serious health and environmental problems. Chief among these issues is resistance to antibiotic medications and bacterial cleansers, a problem for all people, but especially vulnerable populations such as infants and the elderly. Triclosan is also a known endocrine disruptor and has been shown to affect male and female reproductive hormones, which could potentially increase the risk for cancer. Further, the pesticide can interact with other chemicals to form chloroform and breakdown to dioxin, thereby exposing consumers to even more dangerous chemicals. Exposure to triclosan is widespread and now found in the urine of 75% of the U.S. population, according to the Fourth National Report on Human Exposure to Environmental Chemicals, published by the CDC. Due to the fact that many products containing triclosan are washed down the drain, triclosan shows up in water systems and sewage sludge. Accumulation of the pesticide in waterways and soil has been shown to threaten ecosystems and produce hazardous residues in fish.
Last month, environmental and health groups petitioned the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to ban the use of the widely used antimicrobial pesticide triclosan, which is linked to endocrine disruption, cancer and antibiotic resistance and found in 75% of people tested in government biomonitoring studies. Over 75 groups, lead by Beyond Pesticides and Food and Water Watch, say EPA must act to stop the use of a chemical now commonly found in soaps, toothpaste, deordorants, cosmetics, clothing, and plastic, with a nearly $1 billion market and growing. In their petition, the groups cite numerous statutes under which they believe the government must act to stop non-medical uses of triclosan, including laws regulating pesticide registration, use and residues, clean and safe drinking water, and endangered species.
Regulated by both EPA and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, triclosan is commonly found in hand soaps, toothpastes, deodorants, laundry detergents, fabric softeners, facial tissues, antiseptics, fabrics, toys, and medical devices. The petition to EPA seeks expedited action by the agency to ban household triclosan use, challenging serious deficiencies in EPA’s September 2008 reregistration of triclosan and its failure to comply with environmental statutes.
Triclosan is a widely used antibacterial agent found in hundreds of consumer products, from hand soap, toothpaste and deodorant to cutting boards, socks and toys. A recent study found that triclosan alters thyroid function in male rats. Other studies have found that due to its extensive use in consumer goods, triclosan and its metabolites are present in waterways, fish, human milk, serum, urine, and foods. A U.S Geological Survey (USGS) study found that triclosan is one of the most detected chemicals in U.S. waterways and at some of the highest concentrations. Triclosan has been found to be highly toxic to different types of algae, keystone organisms for complex aquatic ecosystems. A recent EPA survey of sewage sludge found that triclosan and its cousin triclocarban were detected in sewage sludge at the highest concentrations out of 72 tested pharmaceuticals.
“Children are uniquely vulnerable to environmental exposures because their biological systems are still developing. During fetal development, exposures to even miniscule amounts of toxins at certain developmental windows can have lifelong health impacts,” acknowledged Larry Silver, M.D., author and a Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at Georgetown Medical Center, accomplished self-advocate, and author of groundbreaking learning disabilities research. “By protecting children from toxic exposures, we can protect everyone. We need to create healthy environments to ensure all children can reach their full potential and contribute to society.”
Dr. Silver was part of a diverse group panel of scientists from a range of disciplines who reviewed the report’s findings and science literature review. The Learning and Developmental Disabilities Initiative partnered with Dr. Silver and over fifty leading scientists to assemble a policy consensus statement from the scientific community covering toxic chemical exposures and learning and developmental health.
“All of us in the study had measurable levels of neurotoxic and endocrine disrupting chemicals in our bodies, regardless of how carefully we buy products for our families or food for our tables. I realize now more than ever why reforming our federal toxics law is absolutely essential to protecting our health, and our children’s health. There is no way for any of us to avoid contamination on our own,” explained Maureen Swanson, Healthy Children Project Coordinator, Learning Disabilities Association of America.
“Prevention of learning and developmental disabilities is both an individual and a community”¨responsibility,” says Stephen Boese, MSW, from Learning Disabilities Associaiton of New York. “However, current laws simply do not work, and have done virtually nothing to assure Americans that our everyday products are safe for use. The enormous rise in the incidence of these disabilities is coupled with a huge increase and proliferation of chemicals in everyday consumer products. These chemicals are largely untested for human safety and largely unknown to the public.”
Advocates from the learning and developmental disability community who have historically focused on access to care and equal rights are questioning the role of toxic chemical exposures on alarming increases in LDD diagnoses as well as individual negative health outcomes in people living with neurological disabilities.
“Given the increasing rates of learning and developmental disabilities– particularly autism””we need to recognize that the rising costs associated with long term care of disability, special education and related health care will only continue to grow,” explained Jeff Sell, Esq.,Vice President of Public Policy for the Autism Society and father of twin teen sons with autism, “The current health care debate suggests we need to do everything we can to decrease costs by taking preventative actions. Reducing environmental contributors to neurological problems will serve to save our families, communities and society significant expenses in the future and can only improve the quality of life for those with these disabilities.”
“About 16% of all children in the United States have a developmental disability, according to a 1994 study, and other research indicates this number is increasing,” says Sharyle Patton, Director of the Commonweal Biomonitoring Resource Center. “Biomonitoring surveys conducted by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control indicate that most Americans carry in their bodies measurable levels of environmental chemicals that have been linked to neurological harm in laboratory and human studies. Precaution would suggest that we limit exposures to these chemicals, starting immediately.”
Critics of the risk assessment approach (as opposed to the precautionary approach) to toxics regulation have maintained that the methodology ignores data gaps on important health outcomes not evaluated (e.g. endocrine disruption), possible interactions, additive and synergistic effects resulting from chemical mixtures permitted to be released in the environment, effects of all the contaminants associated with a pesticide, and the availability of less or non-toxic approaches and products to the pesticide under evaluation. Health advocates have said that multiplying an uncertainty factor (called a safety factor by EPA) of ten times an unknown outcome (equivalent to zerio) does not necessarily improve the protection of children or others exposed. In simple math terms, ten times zero (knowledge) equals zero (knowledge). The best example of this are endocrine disruptors and sublethal effects associated with low dose exposure, where miniscule amounts of a chemical can induce serious health outcomes for a spectrum of disorders throughout ones life.
Beyond Pesticides has historically criticized the agency for what appears to be an arbitrary application of the Food Quality Protection Act 10X “safety” factor, for manipulating safety data and allowing hazardous pesticide uses to remain on the market. Despite these concerns, Beyond Pesticides believes that, in principle, expanding and increasing the uncertainty factor for some chemicals to protect sensitive populations will help reduce the hazards posed by pesticide use, but not eliminate the use of toxic pesticides that are not necessary given the availability of less and non-toxic methods and products. However, taking this step to eliminate the disproportionate risk to farmworkers and their children by equalizing protections across the population under risk calculations has important environmental justice ramifications, especially since occupational exposures were excluded from FQPA when it was passed in 1996. Additionally, advocates are asking EPA to evaluate the reasonableness of of any pesticide-related risks (especially given the unknowns) to children and workers when less and non-toxic approaches to agricultural land management are available and profitable.
Beyond Pesticides is actively working with other environmental and community groups to ban the non-medical uses of triclosan. For more information on triclosan and its impacts on human and environmental health, visit our Antibacterial program page.