“That’s the big breakthrough,” Landrigan says. “The scientific community has mastered the technique of doing these studies, and they’ve been running long enough that they’re beginning to put out some spectacularly good results.” At Columbia, for instance, the children’s center is investigating whether children exposed in the womb to BPA and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs)—byproducts from burning fossil fuels—are more likely to develop learning and behavior disorders than children not exposed. They have also shown that high prenatal exposure to air pollutants like PAHs are associated with attention problems, anxiety, and depression at ages 5 to 7 years. It was this center, together with the UC Berkeley and Mount Sinai children’s centers, that first identified the detrimental impact of chlorpyrifos on IQ and brain development. The researchers even used MRI testing to show that these chemicals appear to change children’s brain structure, causing thinning of the cortex. Other children’s centers are looking at the extent to which these and other chemicals—including arsenic from well water, brominated flame retardants, and the anti-corrosion agent manganese—are to blame for a range of possible neurologic disorders.
Impressive as all this research investment is, the larger question remains: Why are we looking at these hazards now—instead of before we introduced these chemicals into the world?The Insidious Rise of Lead
The problem with toxic substances is that their effects can be insidious. Take the example of lead—a chemical that lingered in gasoline, house paints, and children’s toys for decades before scientists realized the true extent of the damage.
Several years ago, a four-year-old boy in Oregon began complaining of stomach pain and vomiting. Doctors reassured his parents that it was likely a viral illness, but his symptoms worsened, and he became completely unable to eat. He also had a badly swollen cheek. The doctors determined that the boy had bitten himself, so severely that it must have been during a seizure. Blood tests showed that he was anemic, and subsequent tests found that he had extremely high levels of lead (123 micrograms per deciliter of blood).
The doctors began treating the boy with medication to help clear the lead. They also set out to find out where the lead was coming from. An investigation of the boy’s home, which was built in the 1990s, found no lead paint. Despite treatment, though, the boy’s lead tests remained abnormally high. So the doctors did an x-ray.
Inside the boy’s stomach was a one-inch metal medallion, which appeared bright white on the x-ray image. His parents recognized it as a toy necklace they had purchased from a vending machine approximately three weeks earlier. The state environmental quality lab later found that the medallion contained 38.8 percent lead. The manufacturer later did a voluntary recall of 1.4 million of the metal toy necklaces.
By that time, manufacturers had been using the toxic substance for centuries, despite clearly dangerous effects. In 1786, Benjamin Franklin wrote to a friend about the first time he heard of lead poisoning. When he was a boy, he recounted, there had been “a complaint from North Carolina against New England Rum, that it poisoned their people, giving them the dry bellyache, with a loss of the use of their limbs. The distilleries being examined on the occasion, it was found that several of them used leaden still-heads and worms, and the physicians were of the opinion that the mischief was occasioned by that use of lead.” Franklin went on to describe his observations of similar symptoms in patients at a Paris hospital. When he inquired about their occupations, he discovered that these men were plumbers, glaziers, and painters.
In 1921, General Motors began adding tetraethyl lead to gasoline. Lead gave gasoline a higher octane rating, which meant it could handle more compression without combusting. In practical terms, that meant more powerful engines, faster warplanes, and better industrial transport. The Ethyl Corporation that produced leaded gasoline was a joint venture between GM, Standard Oil, and DuPont. One of its executives, Frank Howard, called leaded gasoline “an apparent gift of God,” even as the plant where tetraethyl lead was synthesized became known as “the Houses of Butterflies,” because it was not uncommon for workers to experience hallucinations of insects on their skin.
Americans in the 1950s and ’60s were still widely exposed to unregulated leaded gasoline and paint, as well as piping, batteries, cosmetics, ceramics, and glass. Around that time, studies began to reveal the widespread existence of “subclinical” lead poisoning—damage that was not severe enough to meet diagnostic criteria for a neurologic disease, but would prevent the child from ever achieving optimal intellectual functioning. By 1969, microbiologist and Pulitzer-Prize-winning writer René Dubos said that the problem of lead exposure was “so well-defined, so neatly packaged, with both causes and cures known, that if we don’t eliminate this social crime, our society deserves all the disasters that have been forecast for it.”
By the mid 1970s, the average U.S. preschool child had 15 micrograms of lead per deciliter of blood. Eighty-eight percent of children had a level exceeding 10 μg/dL—which is twice what the CDC currently considers toxic. Among poor black children, the average level was markedly higher: 23 μg/dL.
Instead of making sweeping policy changes, experts largely accused low-income parents—especially mothers—of inadequate supervision and fostering pathological behaviors that led children to eat paint. With parental ineptitude to blame, and poor, minority children bearing the brunt of the problem, a systematic approach to eliminating lead was a low national priority. Bellinger recounted this in the Journal of Clinical Investigation, writing that children were essentially sentinels, used to identify the presence of lead hazards. “As long as the ranks of the lead poisoned consisted primarily of the children of politically and economically disenfranchised parents,” he wrote, “it was hard to interest politicians in the problem. Little political capital could be accumulated by tackling the problem.”
Finally in 1975, the EPA required a gradual phasing of lead out of gasoline. Two years later, the Consumer Product Safety Commission said that residential paint could contain no more than 0.06 percent lead.
Meanwhile there is still disagreement as to what constitutes a safe level of lead exposure—and if there even is such a thing. As more and more evidence came out over the years showing that low levels are in fact toxic to developing brains, the CDC incrementally lowered that threshold—from 60 micrograms per deciliter of blood in 1970 to 40 in 1971, 30 in 1975, 25 in 1985, 10 in 1991, and finally to just five in 2012.
By 2009 the average lead concentration in the blood Americans was about 1.2 μg/dL for young children—just 8 percent what it was in 1980. But Bellinger notes that even this relatively low level is still “substantially elevated from an evolutionary perspective”—many times higher than before our ancestors “began to disturb the natural distribution of lead in the earth’s crust.”
“Are the blood lead levels of contemporary humans generally below the threshold of toxicity?” Bellinger wrote. “Let us hope so, but the conclusion that they are is based more on faith than on evidence.”
The Toothless Law and the New Test
It’s surprising to learn how little evidence there is for the safety of chemicals all around us, in our walls and furniture, in our water and air. Many consumers assume there is a rigorous testing process before a new chemical is allowed to be a part of a consumer product. Or at least some process.
“We still don’t have any kind of decent law on the books that requires that chemicals be tested for safety before they come to market,” Landrigan said.
The law we do have is the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA, pronouncedtoss-ka among those in the know). Passed in 1976 under President Gerald Ford, it is still today the primary U.S. law regulating chemicals used in everyday products. On its face intended to protect people and the environment from dangerous chemical exposure, it is widely acknowledged to have fallen short of its magnanimous goal. It only requires testing for a small percentage of chemicals, those deemed an “unreasonable risk.”
“It’s just an obsolete, toothless, broken piece of legislation,” said Landrigan. “For example, in the early 1990s, EPA was unable to ban asbestos under TSCA.” This was after the National Toxicology Program had classified asbestos as a known cancer-causing agent, and the World Health Organization had called for a global ban. The EPA did briefly succeed in banning asbestos in the U.S. in 1989, but a court of appeals overturned the ban in 1991. Asbestos is still used in consumer products in the U.S., including building materials like shingles and pipe wrap, and auto parts like brake pads.
Landrigan also calls it “a particularly egregious lapse” that when TSCA was enacted, the 62,000 chemicals already on the market were grandfathered in, such that no toxicity testing was required of them. These chemicals were, as Landrigan puts it, “simply presumed safe” and allowed to remain in commerce until a substantial health concern came to public attention.
In the nearly 40 years since the law’s passage, more than 20,000 new chemicals have entered the market. “Only five have been removed,” Landrigan says. He notes that the CDC has picked up measurable levels of hundreds of these chemicals in the blood and urine of “virtually all Americans.” Yet, unlike food and drugs, they enter commerce largely untested.
Landrigan and Grandjean’s purpose in declaring a silent pandemic was less about the 12 named substances and more about using them as cautionary tales. They named in their list a few chemicals that still appear be imminent threats, but they also include some that have been highly restricted in their use for a long time. And at least one of them, fluoride, has proven beneficial in small doses.A next step from there might be an animal testing model. The drawbacks there, Grandjean told me, are that “those programs are expensive, they take time, you have to kill hundreds and thousands of mice and rats.” However, he adds, “if a company has developed a very useful substance, and it turns out to be toxic to nerve cells in petri dishes, then maybe animal testing is the next step.”
“I don’t think that that should necessarily be a requirement,” Grandjean said. “But I can see if a company has developed a very useful substance, and it turns out to be toxic to nerve cells in petri dishes, then maybe that is the next step.”
Landrigan and Grandjean both mentioned something they called Tox21, the Toxicology in the Twenty-First Century program program, which is laying groundwork for a new kind of accelerated, large-scale testing. “TSCA reform really falls under EPA’s jurisdiction,” Landrigan said. “At the NIH and National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, though, that’s where the latest research on this is.”
When I heard that this Tox21 program is teaching a very large yellow robot to do large-scale rapid chemical testing, I had to learn more. Dr. Linda Birnbaum is the director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences and the National Toxicology Program in North Carolina’s Research Triangle. Birnbaum oversees federal funding for research to discover how the environment influences health and disease, including Tox21.
“If you want to do the full battery of current tests that we have on a chemical, you’re looking at least five years and about $5 million,” Birnbaum told me. “We’re not going to be able to do that on large numbers of chemicals.” The robot is being trained to scan thousands of chemicals at a time and recognize threats inexpensively and quickly—before people get sick. It’s also using alternative testing models—looking at not just isolated cells, but also simple organisms like the roundworm C. elegans or zebrafish—to answer certain basic questions.
The program is also looking at how a single chemical might affect a wide range of people. “We’re looking at 1,000 different human genomes from nine different ethnic groups on five continents,” Birnbaum told me.
Like Landrigan, Birnbaum raised the specter of the tens of thousands of chemicals grandfathered in 1976 that underwent no testing, as well as the commonly cited data that less than 20 percent of the 80,000 chemicals in commerce have had any testing at all. She spoke wistfully of the European Union’s chemical testing protocol, a model Grandjean had told me was “very reasonable.” It’s called REACH (Registration, Evaluation, Authorization, and Restriction of Chemicals), and it involves a tiered approach to regulation: If a compound is produced in small amounts, only some cursory information is required. If greater amounts are produced or imported, the EU requires more in-depth testing, such as animal experiments and two-generation studies.
“We’ve learned a heck of a lot in the last 30 to 40 years about the safety of chemicals and what can cause problems,” Birnbaum said, “and it would be really nice if our regulations required us to use some of the newer science to answer the questions of safety.”
“When you use the word pandemic, that’s a scare word,” said Laura Plunkett. “And that’s my problem. There’s a more responsible way to express it. I understand that they want to bring it to attention, but when you bring it to attention, you can still do it in what I would say is a scientifically defensible manner.”
Plunkett has a Ph.D. in pharmacology and toxicology. Reviewing articles written in the wake of the publicity around The Lancet Neurology paper, I was struck by the definitive title of her blog post on a site called Science 20: “There Is No Pandemic of Chemicals Causing Brain Disorders in Children.” Plunkett has been a diplomat for the American Board of Toxicology since 1984. She taught for a while and did research at NIH, but she is now an independent consultant running her own company, Integrative Biostrategies.
One of her clients is the American Chemistry Council. She also has clients in the food, pesticide, and chemical business—“industry ties,” as they say. With that in mind, I sought her out as an established scientist who has worked on the side of the chemical-producing companies. Her blog post about the Lancet article was the only response I found telling people not to panic.
“What [Landrigan and Grandjean] are doing with the data is missing the key component, which is the dose,” Plunkett explained. “Many of the chemicals they talk about are well established to be neurodevelopmental toxicants in children—but it’s all about how much they’re exposed to. Just like anything else. If you don’t give people enough, or if you don’t take enough in your water or food or the air you breathe, you’re not going to have an effect.”
Plunkett insists that, unlike lead, some of the chemicals on the Lancet Neurology list are only developmental toxicants at very high levels—the sort, she says, “that nobody would be exposed to on a daily basis.”
Plunkett says she has no problem with a call to ensure that chemical testing is as thorough as possible. “But then to say, and by the way, if you look at the data, ‘We’ve been poisoning people for the last 10 years’? That’s a whole other step that isn’t supported by the data they point to.”
I asked her how concerned American parents should be about certain individual chemicals on Grandjean and Landrigan’s list. “I mean, we knew lead was a problem 30 years ago,” she said, “and that’s why we removed it from gasoline, and that’s why we don’t let it in solder and cans, and we’ve taken lead-based paint off the market.”
“If you really look at the data on fluoride,” she continued, “trying to link an IQ deficit in a population with that chemical is almost impossible to do. Even though statistically, randomly they may have found a relationship, that doesn’t prove anything—it identifies a hazard but doesn’t prove there’s a cause and effect between the two things.”
What about the chemical that most concerned Landrigan, the pesticide chlorpyrifos?
“No, because the organophosphate pesticides are one of the most highly regulated groups of chemicals that are out there. The EPA regulates those such that if they’re used in agriculture, people are exposed to very, very low levels.”
Pesticides are indeed more regulated than other industrial chemicals. Before manufacturers can sell pesticides in the U.S., the EPA must ensure that they meet federal standards to protect human health and the environment. Only then will the EPA grant a “registration” or license that permits a pesticide’s distribution, sale, and use. The EPA also sets maximum levels for the residue that remains in or on foods once they’re sold.
An EPA spokesperson told me that a company introducing a new pesticide must “demonstrate more than 100 different scientific studies and tests from applicants.” The EPA also said that since 1996’s Food Quality Protection Act, it has added “an additional safety factor to account for developmental risks and incomplete data when considering a pesticide’s effect on infants and children, and any special sensitivity and exposure to pesticide chemicals that infants and children may have.” Landrigan and Grandjean don’t believe that’s always sufficient; the dose may make the poison, but not everyone believes the EPA’s limits are right for everyone.
When I asked Plunkett whether new industrial chemicals were being screened rigorously enough, even she cited the need to strengthen the Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976. “I’m a very strong proponent of fixing the holes we have,” she said, “and we do have some holes under the old system, under TSCA, and those are what the new improvements are going to take care of. They’re going to allow us to look at the chemicals out there we don’t have a lot of data on—and really those are the ones I’m more concerned about.”
The High Price of Lost IQ
Everyone I spoke to for this story agreed that TSCA needs to be fixed. But every attempt has met with bitter opposition. All parties want it to happen; they just want it to happen on their own terms. Unless it does, they don’t want it to happen at all.
Last May, a bipartisan group of 22 senators, led by Frank Lautenberg and David Vitter, introducing the Chemical Safety Improvement Act of 2013. Lautenberg, then 89 years old, was the last surviving World War II veteran in the Senate and a longtime champion of environmental safety. (Among other things, he wrote the bill that banned smoking on commercial airlines.) A month after he introduced his TSCA reform bill, Lautenberg died of pneumonia.
After Lautenberg’s death, Senator Barbara Boxer told reporters the bill “would not have a chance” of passing without major changes. “I will be honest with you,” said Boxer, who chairs the Committee on Environment and Public Works, “this is the most opposition I’ve ever seen to any bill introduced in this committee.” Some of the resistance came from environmental and health advocates who felt the bill would actually make it harder for states to regulate the chemicals that were grandfathered in by TSCA. Their fears intensified in January, after 10,000 gallons of a coal-processing substance poured into West Virginia’s Elk River, contaminating a nearby water treatment plant. (The Wall Street Journal reported, “Little is known about the chemical’s long-term health effects on people, although it isn’t believed to be highly toxic.”)
In February, with Lautenberg’s bill stalled in the Senate committee, Republican Representative John Shimkus seized the opportunity to introduce another reform option called the Chemicals in Commerce Act. The chemical industry applauded Shimkus’ bill—it won support from the American Chemistry Council, American Cleaning Institute, and the Society of Chemical Manufacturers and Affiliates. Earlier this month at the GlobalChem conference in Baltimore, Dow Chemical’s Director of Products Sustainability and Compliance Connie Deford said that TCSA reform was in the interests of the chemical sector, acknowledging that consumer confidence in the industry is at an all-time low.
The EPA Responds
Yet the Chemicals in Commerce Act has provoked strong criticism from groups like the Center for Environmental Health and the Natural Resources Defense Council. A senior scientist with the Environmental Defense Fund called the bill “even more onerous and paralyzing” than the present law, and Representative Henry Waxman, ranking member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, said the bill “would weaken current law and endanger public health.”
I asked the EPA to comment on Landrigan and Grandjean’s claim that we are in the midst of a “silent pandemic” and inquired what, if anything, is being done about it. The agency responded by sending me a statement: “EPA has taken action on a number of the chemicals highlighted in this report which have and are resulting in reduced exposures, better understanding, and more informed decisions.” The agency included a list of the actions it has already taken to reduce exposure to the chemicals identified in the report. (See sidebar.) And it emphasized a 2012 “Work Plan,” which includes plans to assess more than 80 industrial chemicals in the coming years.
When I emailed the statement to Landrigan, he replied, “Many of the items that they list here are things that I helped to put in place.” (In 1997, he spent a sabbatical year setting up EPA’s Office of Children’s Health Protection.) He agreed that the EPA is doing a lot to protect children from environmental threats. “But the problem is that the good people within EPA are absolutely hamstrung by the lack of strong legislation,” he wrote. “They can set up research centers to study chemicals and outreach and education programs, but without strong and enforceable chemical safety legislation, they cannot require industry to test new chemicals before they come to market, and they cannot do recalls of bad chemicals that are already on the market.”
Meanwhile, researchers like David Bellinger, who calculated IQ losses, are highlighting the financial cost to society of widespread cognitive decline. Economist Elise Gould has calculated that a loss of one IQ point corresponds to a loss of $17,815 in lifetime earnings. Based on that figure, she estimates that for the population that was six years old or younger in 2006, lead exposure will result in a total income loss of between $165 and $233 billion. The combined current levels of pesticides, mercury, and lead cause IQ losses amounting to around $120 billion annually—or about three percent of the annual budget of the U.S. government.
Low-income families are hit the hardest. No parent can avoid these toxins—they’re in our couches and in our air. They can’t be sweated out through hot yoga classes or cleansed with a juice fast. But to whatever extent these things can be avoided without better regulations, it costs money. Low-income parents might not have access to organic produce or be able to guarantee their children a low-lead household. When it comes to brain development, this puts low-income kids at even greater disadvantages—in their education, in their earnings, in their lifelong health and well-being.
Grandjean compares the problem to climate change. “We don’t have the luxury to sit back and wait until science figures out what’s really going on, what the mechanisms are, what the doses are, and that sort of thing. We’ve seen with lead and mercury and other poisons that it takes decades. And during that time we are essentially exposing the next generation to exactly the kind of chemicals that we want to protect them from.”