Brain warning over chemicals

Posted: 2 June 2004

Author: Paul Brown

Chemicals are harming the brain development of many children in Europe but laws to phase out the potentially most dangerous substances are still not in place, claims research published today.

Chemicals can seriously impact on children's intelligence. © R Chapman / WWF-UK
Chemicals can seriously impact on children's intelligence. © R Chapman / WWF-UK
Chemicals can seriously impact on children's intelligence.© R Chapman / WWF-UK
The study, entitled Compromising Our Children, brings together the latest research on the impact from chemicals to which everyone is exposed. It reveals that some chemicals, at levels commonly found in the fat and blood of the general public in the UK, are harming children's brain development and coordination.

The WWF report says there are about 70,000 artificial chemicals on the market but very little is known about the effects of most on humans.

One substance, the flame retardant Deca brominated diphenyl ether (Deca-BDE), used in many plastics in computers and televisions as well as in fabrics and furnishings, is causing particular concern.

This retardant is measurable in dust from domestic vacuum cleaners and has been found in the blood of a third of Britons. It is also present in the eggs and bodies of British birds at the top of the food chain, including peregrine falcons, kestrels, barn owls and red kites.

The effects of Deca-BDE on humans is compared in the report to the effect of polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, which, in 1976, were banned because of evidence showing that they caused cancer and liver problems. PCBs are still present in old electrical goods, and are found hundreds of miles away from the nearest human habitation. Deca-BDE is behaving in the same way. It, however, acts on the thyroid gland, which affects behaviour and development, says WWF.

Lower intelligence

Research from European studies published this year showed that mothers with high levels of PCB in their blood had no ill effects themselves, but their children had lower intelligence levels.

The WWF report says that the increasing exposure to chemicals may be linked to several problems such as autism and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. And the European Commission regards the increasing occurrence of development and learning disability as a "significant public health problem".

The commission, concerned about the way flame retardants are accumulating in people, has asked, and succeeded in getting, firms producing Deca-BDE (all manufacturing overseas) to cut the emissions of their factories.

Gwynne Lyons, the toxics policy adviser to WWF-UK, said: "Even when studies suggest some chemicals can affect brain development, swift action is not taken. In effect, we are all living in a global chemical experiment."

The studies, which showed that Deca-BDE caused behavioural abnormalities in mice, were carried out in Sweden and now the Swedish government is looking to phase out the chemical. The country's fire brigade is looking for an alternative flame retardant.

But the chemical industry, while accepting the voluntary reductions in emissions, emphasises that flame retardants save lives and argues that there is insufficient evidence to ban the chemical, claiming the Swedish study is flawed.

Ms Lyons concedes that proof of harm is difficult to produce, but fears that flame retardants may be the "new PCBs". She said: "We banned PCBs and then found out later that they were a lot worse than we thought they were. Children and wildlife have the right not to be contaminated; parents have a right to expect that [home] products are as safe as possible."

  • The flame retardant Deca has been found in polar bears and Arctic birds. The discovery, announced this week by Norwegian scientists, adds to growing concern that the chemical is persistent and accumulates in humans and wildlife. Polar bear samples analyzed by the National Veterinary Institute in Oslo and blood and eggs from glaucous gulls analyzed by the Norwegian Polar Institute were both found to contain Deca. (For more, see: Flame Retardant Chemical Found in Arctic Wildlife, published by Environment News Service June 2, 2004)

    Paul Brown is environment correspondent for The Guardian.logoGuardian Unlimited © Guardian Newspapers Limited 2004 . This article was first published in The Guardian, (Wednesday June 2nd, 2004). All rights reserved. Reproduced with kind permission.

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