The Monsanto Plant has made industrial and pharmaceuticals since the 1930s but for decades it also saturated West Anniston, Ala. with polychlorinated biphenyls. PBCs have long been linked to cancer. More recently, however, researchers have discovered evidence tying the compounds to lack of coordination, diminished IQ, and poor memory among children. When the extent of the contamination in Anniston finally became clear a few years ago it raised questions on what effects the pollution may have had on the people who lived there. Perhaps the multigenerational problems of some families were not the result of poverty or bad genes. Perhaps they were caused by the chemicals in the ground. Gadsden, Ala. Psychiatrist Judy Cook is astounded at how many children have IQs in the “borderline retarded” range and exhibit a penchant for violence. “These kids are different,” she says, “their wiring’s not right.”
There had been earlier studies in Canada that strongly suggested substances like PCBs and mercury didn’t just cause cancer or birth defects – the only problems for which they were tested in the United States. They also suggested that even at extremely low levels, these substances could affect the developing human brain.
Many scientists were slow to see the significance of such research. Why worry about the loss of a few IQ points, they argued, when the real threat of chemical exposure was life-threatening disease? Today, however, a dramatic increase in learning disabilities has forced Environmental Protection Agency officials to acknowledge that they have ignored a much broader problem. One of every six children in America suffers from problems such as autism, aggression, dyslexia, and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. In California, reported cases of autism rose 210 percent, from 1987-1998. In New York, the number of children with learning disabilities jumped 55 percent between 1983 and 1996.
A growing body of evidence suggests that compounds called Neurotoxicants may be contributing significantly to the problem. Neurotoxicants are found in substances as common as tuna, lawn sprays, vaccines and head-lice shampoo. Fetuses and infants exposed to these chemicals during critical windows of development may be at far higher risks for childhood learning problems than once thought. A new study from the National Academy of Sciences suggests that a combination of neurotoxicants and genes may account for nearly 25 percent of developmental problems. “Think of the genes as the country road”, says John Harris of the California birth Defects Monitoring Program, “and the neurotoxicants as driving 90 miles per hour in the rain.”
Chemical manufacturers – as well as some researchers and regulators – are not convinced by such findings. U.S. Surgeon General David Satcher, who grew up in Anniston, finds the existing evidence compelling enough. “How long do you wait, “he asks, “before you take the necessary action to protect children?” the answer, in the case of the EPA appears to be a long time. The chemical industry has effectively rebuffed the few efforts the EPA has made to address the issue.
Chemical companies are among the best-connected businesses in Washington. After hearings in 1985 the House Committee on Science and Technology reported that there were 850 known neurotoxicants, any of which “may result in devastating neurological or psychiatric disorders that impair the quality of life, cripple and potentially reduce the highest intellect to a vegetative state.” The report prompted virtually no action.
Children are particularly vulnerable to toxic chemicals. Normal brain development begins in the uterus and continues through adolescence. It requires a series of complex processes to occur in a carefully timed sequence: Cells proliferate and move to the correct spot, synapses form, neural circuits are refined, and neurotransmitters ad their receptors grown. Neurotoxicants may slow, accelerate, or otherwise modify and of these processes.
EPA adviser and Yale University Prof. John Wargo says: Potentially hazardous chemicals should be judged “guilty until proven innocent.” Although banned in 1977, PBCs and other toxic chemical continue to haunt children in the soil of saturated sites, in airborne pesticides and countless products sold to the public daily.
Vol 19 Issue 2 page 1