Toxic Youth

Unchecked and unseen, everyday chemicals are poisoning our children’s minds

| September-October 2011

  • toxic-youth-sm

    Image by Flickr user: edenpictures / Creative Commons

  • toxic-youth-sm

When my husband and I set out to find a nursery school for our daughter, Faith, nearly 10 years ago, we took the decision seriously. I looked at large parent-run cooperatives and small home-based operations. Jeff visited the Montessori school on the hill and the Waldorf school in the valley. In the end, we chose a nursery school close to home with a frog pond out front, a play structure out back, and trees full of chickadees and nuthatches. We had weighed many considerations, and we all, Faith included, were happy.

That is, until I discovered that the school’s beloved play structure—with its wooden gangway, turrets, and tunnels—was made out of pressure-treated lumber, which, at the time, contained arsenic, a carcinogen. A bladder carcinogen, in fact. I am a bladder cancer survivor and am familiar with all the ongoing medical surveillance this disease requires. So, after a lot of research and discussion, we moved our daughter to a different nursery school. The risk of doing nothing just seemed too high.

Seven years later, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released its final risk assessment for wood impregnated with chromated copper arsenate. The conclusion: Children who play frequently on pressure-treated play sets and decks experience elevated cancer risks. And yet, because the EPA stopped short of recalling preexisting structures when it outlawed arsenic­-treated lumber for residential use in 2004, the play set at our old nursery school still stands. 


Arsenic, as it turns out, is not only a carcinogen but a developmental neurotoxicant as well—one of a family of substances that impair the growth of the brain in ways that interfere with learning. They take many forms, according to a major review published in 2006 in the British medical journal The Lancet. Some of them are heavy metals, such as lead and methylmercury. Some are long-outlawed compounds that still linger among us (PCBs). One common one is used to strip paint, extract natural gas from shale, and suspend pigment in some nail polishes (toluene). Another 200 chemicals are known to act as neurological poisons in human adults and are likely toxic to the developing brains of infants and children, too—but scientific confirmation awaits.

Current laws do not require the systematic screening of chemicals for their ability to cause brain damage or alter brain growth, and only about 20 percent of the 3,000 chemicals produced in high volume in the United States have been tested for developmental toxicity of any kind. The Lancet paper concludes: “The combined evidence suggests that neuro­developmental disorders caused by industrial chemicals have created a silent pandemic in modern society.”

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