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Two of the world's top toxicology experts are calling on governments around the globe to crack down hard on the widespread use of industrial chemicals which they say are hurting the development of children's brains.

"Countries need to transform their chemical risk-assessment procedures in order to protect children from everyday toxins that may be causing a global 'silent epidemic' of brain development disorders," says a new study published Friday in the medical journal The Lancet Neurology.

The report's authors, Dr. Philippe Grandjean, a professor at the Harvard School of Public Health in Boston, and Dr. Philip Landrigan, of Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York, say the number of recognized chemical causes of neurodevelopmental disorders, such as autism, attention deficit disorder, dyslexia and cerebral palsy, has doubled from six to 12 in the past seven years. During the same time period, they say the list of unregulated chemicals found in everyday items such as toys, furniture and clothing, and known to damage the human brain, has expanded from 202 to 214.

In a phone interview from Copenhagen late last week, Grandjean said the European Union has been proactive in banning and regulating certain chemicals that are known to harm children's and adults' health, but that the United States and Canada lag far behind. "Until manufacturers are legally required to prove that all existing and new industrial chemicals are non-toxic before hitting the marketplace – similar to the EU's reformed chemical law REACH – we are facing a pandemic of neurodevelopmental toxicity," warns Grandjean, who adds that children's brains are often impacted in the womb by toxins that pregnant mothers are exposed to. (REACH stands for Registration, Evaluation, Authorization and Restriction of Chemicals.)

Maggie MacDonald, toxic program manager at Toronto-based Environmental Defence, says the study is particularly troubling because of:: "How prevalent these chemicals are in our environment, our homes and our bodies. Babies are being exposed to pollutants before they are even born," says MacDonald, whose organization did a recent study testing umbilical-cord blood of newborns and found lead, methylmercury, pesticides, PCBs and PFCs (chemicals found in non-stick coatings), among other toxins. "This is a very serious problem that needs to be dealt with urgently, for the sake of children everywhere."

Dr. Barry Blakley, a toxicology professor at the University of Saskatchewan, agrees that industrial chemicals' effects on the brain need to be regulated in a far more stringent way. "The fetus is uniquely susceptible to developmental disorders … that can lead to immune and behavioural disorders, as well as reproductive dysfunction later in life," Blakley said. "Often the effects are associated with low-level chemical exposure during pregnancy."

The study says governments could save billions of dollars by getting tough on chemical testing and regulation. Grandjean says in the United States alone, childhood lead poisoning costs an estimated $50-billion (U.S.) a year, while methylmercury toxicity alone costs $5-billion. He suspects those figures are only the tip of the iceberg. "The vast majority of the more than 80,000 industrial chemicals in widespread use in the U.S. have never been tested for their toxic effects on the developing fetus or child. The real impact on children's health is just beginning to be uncovered," says the report.

The authors want to see an international regulatory agency established to co-ordinate, and push for, new measures that would require chemical producers (just like pharmaceuticals) to prove that their products are low-risk. "Our big concern is that children worldwide are being exposed to toxins that harm their intelligence, cause disruptive behaviour and hurt society at large," says Grandjean, who has studied toxicology with Landrigan for more than 30 years.

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