Winter inversion air pollution gets a lot of attention in Utah, deservedly so. Unfortunately, “spring air pollution” gets very little attention but deserves much more. I’m not talking about PM2.5, I’m talking about what the state, farmers, landscapers and gardeners spray into the air in a misguided obsession with insects and weeds. The collateral damage goes far beyond pests.
Last month, leading scientists warned of a “silent pandemic,” citing strong evidence that “children worldwide are being exposed to unrecognized toxic chemicals that are silently eroding intelligence, disrupting behaviors, truncating future achievements and damaging societies.” These toxins — heavy metals, fluoride, chemicals like PCBs, toluene, solvents, flame retardants, BPA, phalates and especially pesticides — are found in the air you breathe, the food you eat, the water you drink, and the grass your kids play soccer on. With national rates of autism continuing to climb dramatically, another 30 percent just since the last survey of two years ago, with Utah having by far the highest rates of autism in the country, this “silent pandemic” warning should be a real wake up call.
More research on autism was published last month in the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine. Brain autopsies of autistic children who had died from unrelated causes, compared to those of normal children, demonstrated abnormal patches of disorganized neurons disrupting the usual distinct layers in the brain’s cortex. The abnormalities almost certainly occurred in utero during key developmental windows before 30 weeks gestation.
Other research suggests an even longer list of toxic substances can irreversibly interfere with the delicate process of organizing fetal brain architecture. Perhaps even more important than the dose of a toxin, is the timing of the exposure. There are no “do overs” in embryonic brain development. One chance is all anyone gets. It is a popular misconception, fed in part by weak government regulations, that toxins produce an all or nothing affect. Levels above “safe” doses are acknowledged to be harmful, but below “safe” levels are misinterpreted as harmless. But that’s not how the body works, especially the developing brain.
The immature brain of an embryo, fetus, or infant is at risk for significant and permanent damage from exposure to chemicals like pesticides, at levels that may have no detectable impact on adults. Consequently public health policies which too often focus on adults, fail to protect developing brains during pregnancy and early infancy.
Brain-damaging chemicals can provoke the entire spectrum of outcomes, from imperceptible to severe neurologic handicaps. Furthermore, the absence of cognitive or behavioral problems in childhood is not necessarily evidence that early exposure to a neurotoxin had no adverse effect on brain development. In fact, studies in both animals and humans have demonstrated that some substances cause damage to the brain that is manifested only in the delayed onset of learning problems, attention deficits, and changes in emotional regulation in teenage and adult years.
Many pesticides are derivatives of World War II era nerve gases, and their mode of action is chemical disruption of the brain and nervous system of insects. It should be no surprise then that human nerve cells could also be affected. Research confirms that mothers more exposed to commonly used, “safe” pesticides bear children with lower intelligence, structural brain abnormalities, compromised motor skills, higher rates of brain cancer, and smaller head size. Adult neurologic diseases like Parkinson’s and an acceleration of cognitive decline are more common in adults with even modest exposure to “legal” pesticides.
Utah should lead the nation in protecting our children, not in the rate of autism. Multiple medical societies are warning us to act on prevention. A good start would be to stop using weed killers and bug spray at home, get over our cosmetic aversion to dandelions in our lawns and public parks, adopt non-spray strategies for mosquito abatement, and demand that industrial agriculture stop pretending it’s OK to soak our crops in poisonous chemicals. The science is in, it’s not OK.
Brian Moench is president of Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment.