Project TENDR Briefing Paper: Protecting the Developing Brains of Children from Plastics and Toxic Chemicals in Plastics

New Study: Disparities in Neurotoxic Exposures and Harm to Children of Color & Children in Low-Income Families, in EHP Today.

Landmark research review is the first to examine disparities in neurotoxic exposures and the harmful effects of those exposures on children by race, ethnicity, and economic status

WASHINGTON, D.C., September 27, 2023—Children from families with low incomes and families of color are exposed to more neurotoxic chemicals and experience greater harm that impacts brain development and contributes to developmental delays according to a review of more than 200 studies published today in the peer-reviewed journal, Environmental Health Perspectives (EHP). The study is titled “Disparities in Toxic Chemical Exposures and Associated Neurodevelopmental Outcomes: A Scoping Review and Systematic Evidence Map of the Epidemiological Literature.”

Neurotoxic chemicals include but are not limited to lead, particulate matter, organophosphate pesticides, PBDE flame retardants, PCBs, and phthalates in air, water, soil, food, food packaging, and plastics.

“As a result of discriminatory practices and policies, families with low incomes and families of color are currently and historically disproportionately exposed to chemicals without their knowledge or consent where they live, work, play, pray, and learn,” says co-Lead Author Devon C. Payne-Sturges, Project TENDR member and associate professor, University of Maryland School of Public Health. “Their neighborhoods are more likely to be located near factories, chemical plants, superfund sites, highways and more vehicle traffic, or by agricultural fields where pesticides are applied. Our study demonstrates children from families experiencing higher exposures are also experiencing greater health and developmental challenges and that when these exposures are reduced, the neurological health of children of color improves.”

Additional findings confirmed by the author’s analysis of studies that measured neurotoxic exposures by sociodemographic and socioeconomic factors include:
● Low-income and Black children had higher exposures to lead.
● Children in communities of color and low-income communities were more highly exposed to air pollution.
● Black and Hispanic children were exposed to higher levels of organophosphate pesticides.
● Black and Hispanic mothers had higher levels of phthalates — neurotoxic chemicals in everyday plastics such as food and drink packaging, and in personal care products like shampoos and body washes.

The studies that looked further found greater impacts to brain development for those children experiencing high exposures. For example:
● Babies living in economically disinvested neighborhoods in their first year of life and exposed to air pollution were more likely to be diagnosed with autism.
● Low socioeconomic status magnified the harmful effects of lead exposure on children’s cognitive function.
● Air pollution exposures were associated with more adverse Performance IQ scores among children from lower-income families.
● Air pollution exposures were associated with worse memory functioning scores among Hispanic and Black boys with exposure to high prenatal stress.

“We need more stringent environmental standards to address pollution that is disproportionately impacting low-income communities and communities of color,” says co- Lead Author Tanya Khemet Taiwo, Project TENDR member and Bastyr University Midwifery Department assistant professor. “But, it’s just as important that we find a way to improve the unjust systems and social policies that create harmful conditions in the first place. As researchers, we can contribute by better documenting how and why children living in poverty and children of color are suffering the greatest harms. And, researchers and policymakers need to collaborate with communities to learn from their experience and expertise, and support locally-driven solutions.”

Project TENDR, a program of The Arc, is an alliance of more than 50 leading scientists, health professionals, and advocates focused on protecting children from toxic chemicals and pollutants harmful to brain development, and on eliminating disproportionate exposures to children of color and children from low-wealth communities.

The authors of the paper found that despite decades of evidence that families with low incomes and families of color are more highly exposed to neurotoxic chemicals, most researchers failed to examine how race, ethnicity, and economic hardship interact with those exposures to produce differing outcomes. When scientists do investigate those interactions, they find toxic chemical exposures are more strongly associated with learning, attention, and behavior problems for children in families that are also exposed to social and economic adversities. Additionally, the research review yielded a conspicuous lack of studies that examined the exposures and neurodevelopmental outcomes among American Indian, Alaska Native, and Asian American communities.

Numerous environmental justice groups such as the Alaska Community Action on Toxics, Alianza Nacional de Campesinas, and Farmworker Association of Florida, Inc have been collaborating with communities to address the impacts of exposure to toxins. They partner with diverse groups around the country, including Black and Hispanic communities, tribes and Indigenous populations, and farmworker families, to better protect children’s health through shared research and education and collaborative organizing and advocacy.

To complement grassroots initiatives, the authors of the review call on all levels of government to limit, lower, and eliminate existing pollution levels and toxic chemical use (including pesticides); halt locating and permitting new chemical and plastics manufacturing plants in or near communities of color and low-income communities; and enact stronger workplace protections.

“FDA and EPA can act now — not later — to protect families from neurotoxic chemicals by banning phthalates from food contact materials; eliminating lead from residential environments, aviation gas, and children’s foods; ending the use of organophosphate pesticides and setting air pollution standards to protect child brain development,” said Dr. Payne-Sturges, who was a policy specialist at EPA for 12 years.

The study’s authors, all of whom are Project TENDR researchers, reviewed 212 studies spanning five decades from 1974 to 2022. The review included studies that examined children ages 0-18, seven neurotoxic chemicals, and a wide array of neurodevelopmental outcomes.

In addition to the study, EHP published an Invited Perspective, to offer context on the review, from Aisha Dickerson, PhD, MSPH, an assistant professor at Johns Hopkins and researcher who studies environmental exposures and their disproportionate impact on autism and dementia risks in underserved communities across the lifespan.

“Lead in Baby Foods” – Project TENDR letter to the editor, New York Times, Sunday, Feb 5, 2023.

Project TENDR’s Letter to the Editor, “Lead in Baby Foods,” published in Sunday New York Times, Feb. 5, 2023. Authored by Project TENDR expert on lead and children’s health, Dr. Mark Mitchell, using his National Medical Association affiliation.

Project TENDR expert in The Hill on FDA refusal to get neurotoxic phthalates out of food, May 2022.

Project TENDR’s press release on FDA’s decision in May 2022 to leave 9 phthalates approved for food contact materials, including those with long-standing evidence of neurodevelopmental and reproductive harm, resulted in an article in The Hill quoting Project TENDR expert Dr. Ami Zota.


Project TENDR Letter Urges CDC to Revise Lead Reference Level for Children

CNN reports Project TENDR’s science-based recommendations for eliminating use of phthalates to protect babies’ brains.

CNN features an in-depth examination of Project TENDR’s new report in AJPH calling for eliminating use of neurotoxic phthalates to protect child brain development.

New TENDR Article, “Neurotoxicity of Ortho-Phthalates: Recommendations for Critical Policy Reforms to Protect Brain Development in Children” in today’s American Journal of Public Health.

In a peer-reviewed article published today in the American Journal of Public Health, leading scientists and health professionals of Project TENDR identify ortho-phthalates as neurotoxic chemicals that increase children’s risks for learning, attention, and behavioral disorders. In particular, prenatal exposures to phthalates can contribute to attention problems in children.

The TENDR experts call for swift government and corporate action to eliminate the use of the entire class of ortho-phthalates to protect child brain development. Phthalates are widely used in personal care products and cosmetics, in food packaging and processing equipment, flooring and other building materials. Black and Latina women have higher exposure to phthalates than White women, independent of income level.

Leading Experts Call for Immediate Action as Mounting Evidence Links Air Pollution to Autism, Reduced IQ in Children

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: February 21, 2019

Washington, D.C.—Today, leading environmental health experts released an article in the American Journal of Public Health citing mounting evidence linking air pollution to neurodevelopmental disorders in children, like autism, ADHD, memory deficiencies and reduced IQ. The authors called on government officials to take swift action to reduce toxic air pollution and protect children’s brain development.

“An increasing body of studies strongly suggests that air pollution exposure can have long term impacts on brain development in children,” said Melanie Marty, a co-author of the paper and former chair of U.S. EPA’s Children’s Health Protection Advisory Committee. “It’s not just cardiovascular and respiratory disease in adults we need to consider – air pollution must be limited to protect the health of our children’s developing brains.”

The paper, which focused on combustion-related air pollutants from burning of fossil fuel, agricultural waste, and from wildfires, includes specific recommendations for federal and local government officials to protect children, chief among them a call to strengthen and enforce the fuel efficiency standards already in place.

“If these recommendations are taken seriously, fewer children will face the challenge of living with neurodevelopmental disorders and more people will be able to fully participate in society across their life span,” the authors wrote.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) under President Trump has a long record of ignoring science on the dangers of a multitude of toxic chemicals. An investigation by the New York Times in December found that the Trump administration had rolled back, or was in the process of rolling back, 21 federal protections related to air pollution and emissions.

“Low-income communities are particularly susceptible to a host of toxic chemicals, including air pollution,” said Devon C. Payne-Sturges, the paper’s lead author and former Assistant Director for U.S. EPA’s National Center for Environmental Research. “The most effective way to ensure we’re protecting children’s brain development, regardless of socioeconomic status or ethnicity, is to limit these toxic air pollutants as a group.”


Read the full paper here.

New Scientific Paper: Broad Class of Pesticides Puts Children at Risk for Reduced IQ, Learning Disabilities

New Scientific Paper: Broad Class of Pesticides Puts Children at Risk for Reduced IQ, Learning Disabilities

Leading Scientists Call for EPA to Ban All Organophosphate Pesticides and Urge Comprehensive Steps to Protect Children

Washington, D.C. — Today, leading toxics experts released a scientific paper in the journal PLOS Medicine warning of the dangers widely-used agricultural pesticides pose to children’s health and development. The authors found that exposure to organophosphate pesticides, even at low levels previously considered safe, can lead to cognitive problems in children, like reduced IQ, developmental delays and increased risk of learning disabilities.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) under President Trump is ignoring clear science behind the danger of such pesticides. EPA scientists and scientific advisors have reported strong evidence that supports a ban on the organophosphate pesticide chlorpyrifos, leading a federal appeals court to rule in August that the EPA must ban chlorpyrifos, but the Trump Administration just announced last month that it will appeal the court’s ruling. Based on a review by its own scientists, the EPA originally proposed to ban chlorpyrifos in 2016, which was subsequently reversed in 2017 under President Trump. The court’s decision to order the chlorpyrifos ban was due to “scientific evidence that its residue on food causes neurodevelopmental damage to children.”

“Children deserve to be healthy and safe from exposure to toxic chemicals. We have compelling evidence from dozens of human studies that exposures of pregnant women to very low levels of organophosphate pesticides put children and fetuses at risk for developmental problems that may last a lifetime.” said Irva Hertz-Picciotto, the paper’s lead author, director of the UC Davis Environmental Health Sciences Center and co-director of Project TENDR (Targeting Environmental Neuro-Development Risks). “Current U.S. EPA policy is failing to protect children and fetuses here in the U.S. from these dangerous chemicals. By law, the EPA cannot ignore such clear findings: It’s time for a ban not just on chlorpyrifos, but all organophosphate pesticides.”

The paper provides an up-to-date review of the science available on risks to children from low-level prenatal exposures to not just chlorpyrifos, but the full class of organophosphate pesticides. These pesticides were developed initially as a nerve gases before World War II. More than 40 organophosphate pesticides are now considered hazardous to human health by the U.S. EPA or the World Health Organization.

“We found no evidence of a safe level of organophosphate pesticide exposure for children. Well before birth, organophosphate pesticides are disrupting the brain in its earliest stages, putting them on track for difficulties in learning, memory and attention, effects which may not appear until they reach school-age,” said Bruce Lanphear, one of the paper’s co-authors and a physician-scientist at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, British Columbia. “Government officials around the world need to listen to science, not chemical lobbyists, and protect our children from chlorpyrifos and all organophosphate pesticides.”

The authors also lay out a set of recommendations that, if implemented, could result in substantial reductions in the pesticide burden to individuals. Besides eliminating use of these pesticides in agriculture, the recommendations call for removing them from non-agricultural uses and products, proactively monitoring sources of drinking water, and establishing a program for reporting of pesticide use and illnesses. Additional recommendations are for greater medical education on the risks from organophosphate pesticides so that health providers understand how to treat pesticide poisonings and can educate their patients on ways to avoid pesticide exposures; and for agricultural entities to train their workers using appropriate languages in the proper handling and application of pesticides, and to increase the use of less toxic alternatives and move towards sustainable pest control measures.

“Exposure of children and pregnant women to these toxic pesticides can have significant and long-lasting effects,” said Jeanne Conry, past president the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, and president-elect of the International Federation of Gynecology and Obstetrics. “Health care professionals are on the front line of responding to organophosphate pesticide exposure, but the only way to make sure families aren’t exposed in the first place is to ban them completely.”

“Alternatives to these toxic pesticides exist, and many farmers have successfully eliminated use of organophosphate pesticides. The agricultural community has a responsibility to use these alternatives. We need federal support for research on less toxic pest management and support to our farmers so they can farm sustainably and profitably, as well as alternatives to organophosphate use to control mosquitos and other public health threats,” said Asa Bradman, environmental health scientist at UC Berkeley and co-author of the paper. “Agriculture must also do a better job of protecting farm workers and their families from exposure, by making sure they have the training and equipment necessary to prevent exposure to organophosphate pesticides.”

Hawaii recently became the first U.S. state to ban chlorpyrifos use. Internationally, the European Union denied the approval of 33 organophosphate pesticides, and several other countries have outright banned a handful of other organophosphate pesticides.

Read the paper here.

The paper’s authors include:

  • Irva Hertz-Picciotto, UC Davis Professor and Vice Chair for Research, Department of Public Health Sciences, School of Medicine,
  • Jennifer B. Sass, Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) Senior Scientist of Federal Toxics, Health and Food, Healthy People & Thriving Communities Program
  • Stephanie Engel, University of North Carolina Professor Department of Epidemiology
  • Deborah H. Bennett, UC Davis Professor of Public Health
  • Asa Bradman, UC Berkeley Associate Director, Center for Environmental Research and Children’s Health and Associate Adjunct Professor, Environmental Health Sciences
  • Brenda Eskenazi, UC Berkeley Brian and Jennifer Maxwell Endowed Chair in Public Health and Director, CERCH (The Center for Environmental Research and Children’s Health)
  • Bruce Lanphear, Simon Fraser University Professor of Health Sciences
  • Robin Whyatt, Former Professor of Clinical Environmental Health Sciences

Letter to EPA on proposed rule: Strengthening Transparency in Regulatory Science

Today more than 40 health experts voice their opposition to the EPA Proposed Rule, Strengthening Transparency in Regulatory Science, in a letter to the EPA. As scientists and health professionals we recognize the importance of data sharing and replicability in scientific practice and discourse; but, this proposed rule is about stifling science, not improving it, and could lead to the dismantling of many important EPA regulations that protect children from toxic chemicals and pollutants. We would welcome an open dialogue to improve science-based decisions across the federal government. But we stand united in firm opposition to this proposed rule. Read the full TENDR Letter.

Page 1 of 2