Our Stolen Futurea book by Theo Colborn, Dianne Dumanoski, and John Peterson Myers



Schettler, T, J Stein, F Reich, and M Valenti. 2000. In Harm's Way: Toxic threats to child development. A report by Greater Boston Physicians for Social Responsibility.

Schettler et al. reports on the contribution of chemical contamination to an epidemic of developmental, learning, and behavioral disabilities affecting America's children today. Nearly 12 million children (17%) in the United States under age 18 suffer from one or more learning, developmental, or behavioral disabilities. "These disabilities are clearly the result of complex interactions among genetic, environmental and social factors that impact children during vulnerable periods of development."

Scientific research points to contamination in the womb as a significant contributor to these problems. "Toxic exposures deserve special scrutiny because they are preventable causes of harm."

Below follow a series of excerpts from the report's Executive Summary. The entire report is available for downloading in .pdf format.

Also see Greater Boston PSR's recommendations for personal steps you can take to protect your child and family from toxic threats to brain development.

[Related press coverage]



On incidence, In Harm's Way reports:

  • "Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), according to conservative estimates, affects 3 to 6% of all school children, though recent evidence suggests the prevalence may be as high as 17%."
  • "Learning disabilities alone may affect approximately 5-10% of children in public schools."
  • "Approximately 1% of all children are mentally retarded" (in the United States).
  • "The incidence of autism may be as high as 2 per 1000 children. One study of autism prevalence between 1966 and 1997 showed a doubling of rates over that time frame. Within the state of California, the number of children entered into the autism registry increased by 210% between 1987 and 1998."

On causation, the report summarizes:

Genetic factors can be important, but they should not be viewed in isolation. Increasingly scientists are focusing on interactions between an individual's genetic make-up and environmental 'triggers.' Particular genes can increase one's susceptibility to a contaminant by, for example, altering metabolism of the contaminant in the body, decreasing (or increasing) one's ability to detoxify a specific contaminant, or --more complex still--causing inappropriate immune system reactions to particular compounds.

Examining the scientific literature on contaminants, animal and human studies show conclusively that "a variety of chemicals commonly encountered in industry and the home can contribute to developmental, learning and behavioral disorders."

Among the known agents are lead, mercury, manganese, nicotine, dioxins and PCBs, many pesticides (particularly but not exclusively the organophosphate pesticides, whose origins are the nerve gases developed during WW II, solvents such as toluene, styrene and trichloroethylene).

And unfortunately, these are not just theoretical concerns.

  • Adverse impacts are seen at current exposure levels. For example, according to US EPA estimates, almost 1.2 million women in the US during their childbearing years eat sufficient amounts of mercury-contaminated fish to risk brain damage in their children.
  • "Breast-fed infants are exposed to levels of dioxin that exceed adult exposures by as much as a factor of 50. Dioxin exposures of this magnitude have been shown to cause abnormal social behavior in monkeys exposed before birth through the maternal diet."
  • Prenatal exposure to PCBs at levels found in the US population today "adversely affects brain development, causing attention and IQ deficits."



Tragically, exposures continue.

  • "Of the top 20 chemicals reported by the Toxics Release Inventory as released in the largest quantities into the environment in 1997, nearly three-quarters are known or suspected neurotoxicants."
  • "Vast quantities of neurotoxic chemicals are also used in industrial processes and incorporated into products."
  • "Mercury contamination is so widespread that 40 states have issued one or more health advisories warning pregnant women or women of reproductive age to avoid or limit fish consumption. Ten states have issued advisories for every lake and river within the state's borders."


  And most people remain ignorant of these findings, including many obstetricians and pediatricians, who should and could be providing solid, responsible advice to parents and parents-to-be on simple steps to reduce risks attributed to childhood behavioral disabilities.  





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