Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Household chemicals causing "silent pandemic"

Household chemicals causing "silent pandemic"

Paint is just one of the many household items we encounter every day that may contain potentially toxic ingredients.

Paint is just one of the many household items we encounter every day that may contain potentially toxic ingredients. Photograph by : Astrid Stawiarz/Getty Images

Margaret Munro, CanWest News Service

Industrial chemicals have impaired the brain development of children, knocked down IQs, shortened attention spans and triggered behaviour problems, says a new report that is calling for better regulation of 201 chemicals with neurotoxic effects.

In a report warning of ''a silent pandemic in modern society,'' a team from the Harvard School of Public Health says millions of children may already have been affected.

''About half of the 201 chemicals that we list are high-volume production chemicals,'' says lead author Dr. Philippe Grandjean. The list includes aluminum and tin compounds, solvents like acetone and benzene, many organic substances and dozens of pesticides.

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The report takes a global view of the problem, but Grandjean says there is no question Canadians are exposed and affected.

''Most of these chemicals occur in Canadian chemical production, in the environment, in consumer goods,'' he says. He also says Canada stands out for exposure to the neurotoxin manganese, which has been used as an anti-knock agent in gasoline.

Health Canada declined to comment on the report, published Wednesday in the Lancet, or say how widely used the compounds are in Canada. But the department is promising action on thousands of chemicals that were introduced into use in Canada without adequate toxicity testing.

''We will have something in the very near future,'' says Erik Waddell, press secretary for Health Minister Tony Clement.

Critics doubt the government will go far enough, and predict it will be decades before the toxins are off the market.

''We're moving toward the George Bush model,'' says Bruce Campbell, executive director of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, which recently issued a report harshly critical of the way the government has moved towards deregulation and cut funding for enforcement and testing.

The Lancet report says one in six children now has a developmental disability, many of them learning problems, sensory deficits and developmental delays that affect the nervous system. Mounting evidence has linked industrial chemicals to such neurological disorders, and the report deplores the way the chemicals are ''not regulated to protect children.''

There are ''great gaps'' in testing of the chemicals, and regulators will only restrict compounds if there is a ''high level'' of proof of damage and problems, the report says, adding this puts vulnerable developing brains at unacceptable risk.

In nine months, the fetal brain grows into ''a complex organ consisting of billions of precisely located, highly interconnected and specialized cells,'' the report says.

The growth occurs within ''a tightly controlled time frame, in which each developmental stage has to be reached on schedule and in the correct sequence.''

This creates ''windows of unique susceptibility to toxic interference'' that can have permanent consequences, say Grandjean and co-author Philip J. Landrigan, a professor at Mount Sinai School of Medicine.

The researchers compiled the list of 201 chemicals toxic to the human brain based on available data and studies. They say there are likely many more.

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