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Researchers Warn Industrial Chemicals with Human Health Risks on the Rise


A new research review says the number of chemicals known to have an impact on brain development has doubled in the last seven years.Medical College of Wisconsin scientist Matt Dellinger focuses on health disparities and risks associated with such contaminants, particularly among Native American tribes and rural populations.

“They have subsisted on fish as a large part of their diet and as many people know, fish in the Great Lakes tend to be contaminated with industrial contaminants and some of those fish can be unsafe to eat," he says. "Because these populations are particularly dependent on that food source, the contamination and the advisory against eating that type of food tends to result in health disparities, poor nutrition and health risks."

The review “Neurobehavioral Effects of Developmental Toxicity," co-authored by Philippe Grandjean of Harvard School for Public Health and Philip J. Landrigan in Preventive Medicine at Mount Sinai, was published in the February edition of The Lancet Neurology.

“More must be done to close the gap in testing of chemicals for neurodevelopmental neurotoxic effects; strengthen government regulation of these chemicals; and educate the public about the absolute and irreversible harm these chemicals do,” Landrigan said in a release.

Dellinger says one of the the neurotoxicants discussed in the review – mercury – is still a prominent contaminant in the Great Lakes, despite longstanding awareness of its health risks.

“It’s an industrial pollutant and it’s a global pollutant, so if they’re burning coal in China not only are we getting the excess greenhouse gases, we’re getting excess mercury. So goes the fossil fuels, goes the mercury,” Dellinger says.

The authors of the Harvard / Mount Sinai review propose a three-pronged strategy to address the threat industrial chemical threat to human health:

  • Legally mandate testing of existing industrial chemicals and pesticides already in commerce, with prioritization of those with the most widespread use, and incorporation of new assessment technologies;
  • Legally mandate premarket evaluation of new chemicals before they enter markets, with use of precautionary approaches for chemical testing that recognize the unique vulnerability of the developing brain;
  • Form a new clearinghouse for neurotoxicity as a parallel to the International Agency for Research on Cancer, (which will) facilitate and coordinate epidemiological and toxicological studies and will lead the urgently need global programs for prevention.

Dellinger says balancing what is known and yet unknown about how chemicals impact human health requires a "societal conversation."
“There are tens of thousands of chemicals, perhaps hundreds of thousands, out there that we’re exposed to every day. There’s a lot we’re never going to know about our relationship to those chemicals to our health. We have to have a proactive approach to studying it and identifying which are going to be the really nasty chemicals that probably should be banned," he says.

Susan Bence entered broadcasting in an untraditional way. After years of avid public radio listening, Susan returned to school and earned a bachelor's degree in Journalism from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. She interned for WUWM News and worked with the Lake Effect team, before being hired full-time as a WUWM News reporter / producer.