Mental Health: A Heightened Recognition of the Role of Toxic Chemicals

written by Elise Miller, EdM

For the first time the American Psychological Association’s (APA) Monitor on Psychology magazine featured a cover story (Oct 2015) on the impact toxic chemicals can have on the developing brain. It makes sense that if chemical exposures can undermine children’s learning capacities, then they might be implicated in mental health problems as well. However, there has been scant research in or recognition of the latter in mainstream psychology. image from the APA articleThe publication of this article suggests that this sector may now be starting to take these concerns more seriously.

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Top 10: 3rd Quarter 2015

We present the ten most significant news or research stories in environmental health of the last quarter, in CHE’s view. The first three items are statements from major scientific or health organizations summarizing large bodies of research and drawing conclusions about the interaction of our environments and our health. These reports join a growing list of statements and documents (see compilations of consensus statements and of resolutions and scientific statements on CHE’s website).

Additional items in this list present notable new research, new policy developments, new focus or new thinking on their respective topics.

  1. FIGOInternational Federation of Gynecology and Obstetrics opinion on reproductive health impacts of exposure to toxic environmental chemical: The global health and economic burden related to toxic environmental chemicals is in excess of millions of deaths and billions of dollars every year, including impacts on health and quality of life. On the basis of accumulating robust evidence of exposures and adverse health impacts related to toxic environmental chemicals, the International Federation of Gynecology and Obstetrics (FIGO) joins other leading reproductive health professional societies in calling for timely action to prevent harm.
    Read CHE’s Blog post on the statement, written by a statement author, and join CHE’s call on the statement on October 30th.
  2. Executive Summary to EDC-2: The Endocrine Society’s second scientific statement on endocrine-disrupting chemicals: The full Scientific Statement represents a comprehensive review of the literature on seven topics for which there is strong mechanistic, experimental, animal, and epidemiological evidence for endocrine disruption, namely: obesity and diabetes, female reproduction, male reproduction, hormone-sensitive cancers in females, prostate cancer, thyroid, and neurodevelopment and neuroendocrine systems.
  3. PlanetaryHealthSafeguarding human health in the Anthropocene epoch: report of The Rockefeller Foundation–Lancet Commission on planetary health: A growing body of evidence shows that the health of humanity is intrinsically linked to the health of the environment, but by its actions humanity now threatens to destabilize the Earth’s key life-support systems.
    See the infographic that accompanies this report.
  4. California bill leads nation with significant steps to limit antibiotic overuse in meat production: The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has identified antibiotic resistance as one of the top health threats facing the nation. This action puts California at the forefront of efforts in the US to limit the misuse and overuse of antibiotics in meat production and protect the efficacy of precious antibiotics.
  5. Pesticide exposure linked to diabetes development: New studies, including a meta-analysis, appear to show that there is a link between exposure to pesticides and the later development of diabetes, researchers reported at the annual meeting of the European Association for the Study of Diabetes.
    See more about the meta-analysis: Analysis of 21 studies shows exposure to pesticides is associated with increased risk of developing diabetes.
    Although this meta-analysis and other studies were presented at a conference and have not been published, we felt this topic merited inclusion in the Top 10 because it reinforces the growing number of peer-reviewed studies that suggest a link between diabetes and pesticides.
  6. Assessing the carcinogenic potential of low-dose exposures to chemical mixtures in the environment: the challenge ahead: Our analysis suggests that the cumulative effects of individual (non-carcinogenic) chemicals acting on different pathways, and a variety of related systems, organs, tissues and cells could plausibly conspire to produce carcinogenic synergies.
    See news coverage on this report from the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS): Exposure to low levels of chemical mixtures linked with cancer and Low-dose mixtures and cancer highlighted at NIEHS symposium, plus CHE’s teleconference call on the report: Theories of carcinogenesis: assessing the carcinogenic potential of low-dose exposures to chemical mixtures in the environment.
  7. Association of child poverty, brain development, and academic achievement: Poverty is tied to structural differences in several areas of the brain associated with school readiness skills, with the largest influence observed among children from the poorest households.
    See a news report on the study, drawing from an interview with the study senior author: Effect of poverty on brains may explain poor kids’ lower test scores.
    As the author notes, this study “closes the loop and adds the missing piece” regarding the connection between poverty, brain development and academic achievement, finding that the effects are mediated by a smaller hippocampus and frontal and temporal lobes and that the decrease in volume of the latter two structures explained as much as 15% to 20% of the achievement deficits found. Of note is that children facing numerous other risk factors for poor brain development were screened out from this study. cumulativeImpactsThe impacts of poverty, nutrition, conflict, disease and other stressors in addition to exposures to toxic chemicals and radiation each may have individual and synergistic effects on brain development. This study brings focus to the role of poverty on brain development and achievement, but because children living in poverty often face other adverse conditions concomitant to poverty, the full effects of poverty are likely even greater than reported in this study.
  8. Two articles on health effects of hydraulic fracturing (fracking): Endocrine-disrupting chemicals and oil and natural gas operations: potential environmental contamination and recommendations to assess complex environmental mixtures and Environmental and health impacts of ‘fracking’: why epidemiological studies are necessary. These articles make the case for concern over serious impacts on health and call for more research, including regarding the endocrine-disrupting potential of chemicals used in the process.
  9. The scandal regarding Volkswagen’s programming cars to avoid emissions control. A flurry of news reports on this situation were published. We present two focusing on human health impacts: Scientists say car emissions rigging raises health concerns and How many deaths did Volkswagen’s deception cause in the US? Because 11 million cars worldwide may be affected, and because diesel-fueled cars account for just 3 percent of passenger vehicles in America but closer to 50 percent in Europe, the health impacts of VW’s intentional undermining of clean air standards could be enormous.
  10. The Center for Public Integrity’s series on occupational exposures and health. CPI’s reports published a long list of articles describing the health impacts of occupational exposures on workers and their families, the failure of current safeguards, the push to weaken even those, and recommendations for reform.
Reproductive Health Professionals around the World Take a Stand on Toxic Chemicals

Reproductive Health Professionals around the World Take a Stand on Toxic Chemicals

To commemorate World Environmental Health Day this year and its focus on children’s environment and health, CHE is publishing a series of short essays from partners who are leaders in children’s environmental health.

written by David Tuller, DrPH, and Tracey J. Woodruff, PhD, MPH

In recent years, a growing body of research has documented that the in utero environment has a critical impact on future health and development. A strong body of evidence shows that prenatal exposure to toxic chemicals can usher in a host of adverse effects in childhood and across the lifespan, as well as in subsequent generations.

Now the world’s leading organization of reproductive health specialists, the International Federation of Gynecology and Obstetrics (FIGO), is urging medical professionals to demand stronger government regulation of toxic environmental chemicals.[1] FIGO’s call to action resonates with the theme of this year’s World Environmental Health Day—Children’s Health and Safety and the Protection of Their Environment.

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The First 1000 Days: A Healthy Return on Investment

Elise Miller
Ted Schettler

Elise Miller, MEd, CHE Director, and Ted Schettler, MD, MPH, Science Director at SEHN and CHE, contributed the following article to the current edition of San Francisco Medicine, focused on human health and the environment, and especially the effects of early-life exposures. The full article can be found on the San Francisco Medical Society’s website. Join CHE on December 2nd for a call with contributors to the journal as they discuss neurotoxicants, climate change, cancer, and much more. 

Upward trends in a number of childhood diseases and disabilities are featured almost daily in the media. As many as one in six children in the US has a neurodevelopmental disability, including autism, ADHD, and speech or cognitive delays. The number of children needing special education has increased by 200 percent from a quarter century ago. The incidence of childhood leukemia and brain cancer is also on the rise, and asthma is still the number one reason for school absenteeism among school children.

Meanwhile, we have been learning a great deal more about how children’s earliest experiences, beginning in utero, can significantly influence their lifelong health.

Many studies show that “toxic stress”–intense, sustained adverse experiences–in childhood increases the risk of many health and behavioral problems in the short and long term, including intellectual delays, obesity, diabetes, and heart disease. This evidence has in turn prompted a surge of programs that provide support for new mothers and improved child care, such as Zero to Three and Early Head Start.

Other environmental influences on fetal development, starting even before conception, can of course be critical for lifelong health as well. Initiatives like the Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC) take this into consideration with their emphasis on healthy nutrition before, after and during pregnancy. Efforts to address other social stressors like poverty and violence are also included in some maternal health programs in different health care systems as well as at local, county, and state levels across the country.

Various biologic mechanisms mediate the influence of environmental variables on child development, including genetic and epigenetic changes, altered molecular signaling patterns, and influences on hormonal and metabolic set points, which can lead to disturbances of organ structure and function over varying timeframes.

Another Highly Influential Factor: Chemical Exposures in Early Life

In addition to excessive stress and inadequate nutrition, a large and growing body of research shows that the developmental effects of pre- and post-natal exposures to toxic chemicals–now ubiquitous in air, water, food, soil, and consumer products–must also be considered. Most chemicals circulating in maternal blood can and do pass through the placenta and can adversely impact the developing fetus. Lead, alcohol, mercury, some pesticides, and flame retardants are among the best known, but in its Proposition 65 program, California lists 652 chemicals as reproductive/developmental toxicants. Biomonitoring programs, like CDC’s NHANES, show how commonly the general population is exposed to chemicals that can interfere with normal development with lifelong health consequences.

Continue reading the article on pages 10 and 11 of the journal.

The Toxic Chemical Experiment on Our Reproductive Systems

Cassidy Randall
Director of Outreach and Engagement, Women’s Voices for the Earth

This piece is posted in full on the WVE blog. It’s excerpted here with permission of the author.

People often ask me, “Why a women’s environmental organization?”

I always take a breath before answering, because there are so many reasons, and because each one contributes to my passion to get toxic chemicals out of our world:

Women’s health problems linked to toxic chemicals are on the rise. Rising rates of breast cancer, early puberty, contaminated breast milk, infertility, birth defects – the list, unfortunately, goes on.

Women are greater users of consumer products that contain toxic chemicals, like personal care products, fragrance, and cleaning products.

Women of color are at greater risk. Many products marketed to women of color, such as skin lighteners, hair relaxers, and dyes, contain some of the most toxic chemicals on the market; flame retardant chemicals have increased by 40% in the breast milk of Inuit women in the Arctic; according to the CDC, African American women are 34% more likely to die of breast cancer than white women.

Continue reading on the WVE site.

Critically High Blood Sugar, Critical Science

In recognition of CHE’s 10th anniversary, colleagues who have been particularly instrumental to shaping CHE this past decade will be invited to write an introduction. This month’s introduction is by Sarah Howard, who serves as the national coordinator for CHE’s Diabetes-Obesity Spectrum Working Group.

“It’s critically high,” the ER nurse informed me, describing my toddler’s blood sugar level. She had just pricked his tiny finger, but it wasn’t enough; she needed a blood draw to see how just how high it really was. Two nurses held down my son, while I tried to comfort him, while he screamed, while they prodded and poked, failing to hit a vein. The pediatric team was called in, and eventually he slept while I heard the result: 798, a number seared in my memory forever, a dangerously high blood sugar level. My 23-month-old little boy had diabetes.

That was five years ago, almost 10,000 needles ago. After the shock of his diagnosis wore off, I started reading more about type 1 diabetes. I found out that type 1 incidence was increasing in children—in 58 different countries around the world. That the increasing type 1 incidence was due to some environmental factors, that genetics alone could not explain it. That the increase was most rapid in the youngest children, the children who, like my son, developed diabetes before their fifth birthday party. This much was clear. What was not clear was why.

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Science Pick: Is Fracking the New Tobacco?

Nancy Myers
Science & Environmental Health Network and 
the CHE and SEHN Cumulative Impacts Project

The public health consequences of large-scale natural gas extraction by hydrofracturing are all but unstudied. Regulation and permitting has been left to the states because Congress has exempted the process from regulation under the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts. States have all but ignored public health consequences in permitting decisions. And given the protection of formulae for fracking fluids as confidential business information, gauging present and potential health effects is extremely challenging.

Nevertheless, two scientists, Michelle Bamberger and Robert E. Oswald, have issued a preliminary study of what scientists might learn if they could conduct thorough analyses of the health impact of fracking. Their study, Impacts of Gas Drilling on Human and Animal Health, was published in New Solutions, Vol. 22(1) 51-77, 2012 and may be accessed on the Cumulative Impacts Project website.

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