There’s been a lot of concern in recent weeks over the drinking water in Charleston, W.Va., which has faced safety issues ever since a coal-processing plant leaked chemicals into a nearby river last month. But new research shows it doesn’t necessarily take an industrial accident to expose us to potentially toxic agents.
According to a report from the Harvard School of Public Health and the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, a growing number of everyday products–including some bug sprays, cleaning fluids and flame-retardant furniture–could lead to an increased risk of brain and behavioral disorders in children. The developing brain, the report says, is particularly vulnerable to the toxic effects of certain chemicals these products may contain (see above), and the damage they cause can be permanent.
The official word, however, is still evolving. Health and environmental advocates have long urged U.S. government groups to tighten the use of some of the 11 chemicals the report cites (up from five in 2006) and require more studies on their long-term effects. In 2001, for example, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) restricted the type and amount of lead that could be present in paint and soil in homes and child-care facilities, after concerns about cases of lead poisoning. The agency is now investigating the neurotoxic effects of some of the chemicals in the latest report.
But the threshold for regulation is high. Because children’s brain and behavioral disorders, like hyperactivity and lower grades, can also be linked to social and genetic factors, it’s tough to pin them on exposure to specific chemicals with solid statistical evidence, which is what the EPA requires. Even the Harvard/Icahn study did not prove a direct correlation but noted strong associations between exposure and risk of behavioral issues.
Nonetheless, it’s smart to exercise caution. While it may be impossible to prevent kids from drinking tap water that may contain trace amounts of chemicals, keeping kids away from lawns recently sprayed with pesticides and freshly dry-cleaned clothes–both of which contain higher doses of potentially harmful toxins–can’t hurt. For more, visit time.com/toxins.
This appears in the March 03, 2014 issue of TIME.
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