Mom Alert: 11 Common Chemicals Toxic to Developing Brains, 12 Simple Things You Can Do


Mom Alert: 11 Common Chemicals Toxic to Developing Brains, 12 Simple Things You Can Do

As a parent, when I see headlines about chemicals in our environment that are “toxic to our children’s brains” my stomach flips over a little bit.  It hits a nerve.  I feel a sense of not being able to protect my children.  I wonder “what next”?

Dr. Philip Landrigan at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York and Dr. Philippe Grandjean from Harvard School of Public Health in Boston, authors of the
review published Friday in The Lancet Neurology journal, say the news is so troubling they are calling for a worldwide overhaul of the regulatory process in order to protect children’s brains. Recently, The Lancet Neurology journal published an article adding six chemicals to the list of known neurotoxicants (five chemicals were identified in 2006).  Neurotoxicants are substances that impact brain development and can cause neurodevelopmental disabilities including attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, autism, dyslexia and other cognitive damage.

“The number of chemicals known to be toxic to children’s developing brains has doubled over the last seven years”, the researchers said.

The chemicals identified as neurotoxicants are:

  • Identified in 2006: lead, methylmercury, arsenic, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), toluene
  • Added: manganese, fluoride, tetrachloroethylene, polybrominated diphenyl ethers (flame retardants), chlorpyrifos (pesticide), dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane (DDT, a pesticide)

We all want our children to grow up in the healthiest environment possible.  While reports like this can feel overwhelming, even defeating, there are simple things you can do to protect your children.  By the way, these chemicals aren’t great for adults, either!

Below are simple tips to avoid the chemicals listed in this report, and other chemicals of concern.

1.  Filter your water

Chemicals like herbicides, pesticides, pharmaceuticals, and chlorine are found in our drinking water.  So are heavy metals like lead, mercury, cadmium, and more.

The easiest solution is a simple pitcher like Pur or Brita (around $20).  In our home we use Pur because it is NSF certified to filter both tetrachloroethylene (one of the neurotoxicants identified in the Lancet article) and atrazine (the most common pesticide found in drinking water) but Brita is not.

Some experts claim filtering your bathing water is just as important as your drinking because of how much your skin absorbs while bathing.  We installed this whole-home carbon filter system for $70 (plus $30 filter every 3 months) to remove chlorine from our household water.  This decreases our exposure to chlorine in the bath and shower (read more here for why this may be important).

In combination with the Pur pitcher for our drinking water we have decreased a significant number of chemicals in our water for very little cost or effort.  Check out the EWG’s Water Filter Buying Guide for more details on what contaminants different filters will remove.

2.  Use less canned foods

BPA is a known endocrine disruptor, and was in the news recently for its link to miscarriage in pregnancy.  BPA is found in the lining of canned foods, unless labeled as BPA free.  Even BPA free is questionable since the alternative chemical used (BSA) has not been fully tested for safety.  When possible, choose fresh or frozen foods, or foods in glass jars.  I was excited to find Jovial diced tomatoes in a glass jar at Whole Foods recently.

3.  Skip the receipt

Did you know the thermal ink on receipts in the US contain high levels of BPA?  When you can, skip the receipt.  If you have to take it, handle as little as possible and keep it away from children.

4.  Take your shoes off

Studies have shown pesticides, coal tar (a known carcinogen used in driveway sealants and other pavement), lead and mercury are commonly found in the dust of homes in the US.  These chemicals are tracked into our homes on our shoes.  Considering how much time infants and young children spend on the floor (and putting everything in their mouth!), it’s worth leaving your shoes at the door.   If you are uncomfortable asking visitors to take off their shoes – don’t stress out.  90 percent of the foot traffic comes from you and your family… so get your family some nice slippers, and leave the shoes at the door!  Vacuuming regularly with a HEPA filter will remove contaminated house dust.

5.  Pick children’s pajamas free of flame retardants

Current law requires kid’s sleepwear to meet flammability standards.  To meet this requirement, fabric is either treated with flame retardant chemicals or must be snug-fitting.  The most popular chemical flame retardant is “Proban”.   It is controversial because studies have liked it to liver and nervous system damage, genetic abnormalities, and cancer.  Snug-fitting garments meet flame resistance requirements naturally because they eliminate space for the flow of oxygen between the fabric and the body.  

How do you know if a pajama is free of chemical flame retardants?   Look for labels that say the following: “For child’s safety, garment should fit snugly.”

6.  Ditch the air fresheners

Did you know that indoor air quality is routinely found to be more polluted than the outside? One big contributor to indoor pollution is synthetic air fresheners.  The Natural Resources Defence Council (NRDC) conducted a study which found 86% of air fresheners tested contained dangerous phthalates.  Phthalates are well known to interfere with hormones (endocrine disruption), and have been associated with reproductive abnormalities.  They are also associated with allergic symptoms and asthma.  Other chemicals found in air fresheners include formaldehyde, camphor, ethanol, phenol, petroleum-based artificial fragrances (which contain their own mix of toxins) and benzyl alcohol. These chemicals can cause symptoms like headaches, rashes, dizziness, migraines, asthma attacks, coughing and some are suspected carcinogens. Children are particularly susceptible to harm from chemicals in indoor air.  Instead use natural oil diffusers and open your windows more often!

7.  Limit certain fish from your diet

The main source of methylmercury exposure is eating fish and shellfish contaminated with this toxin.  Fish high in mercury that should be avoided are:  shark, swordfish, king mackerel, or tilefish.  Flounder, salmon, cod and haddock are lower in mercury.  Here is a list from EWG of fish to avoid and fish that can be eaten more safely.

Farmed or Wild?  Choose wild whenever possible.  Farmed Salmon may contain PCB’s, one of the chemicals identified in the Lancet article as harmful.

7.  Air out your dry-cleaning

Tetrachloroethylene is widely used for dry-cleaning.  In addition to the neurologic implications discussed in the Lancet study, the EPA has classified tetrachloroethylene as likely to be carcinogenic to humans.  Take your dry-cleaning out of the plastic bag and let it off-gas before wearing or putting in your closet.  Outside would be ideal, but you can also hang it somewhere like the garage overnight.  You can also look into a “green dry-cleaner”.  Be sure to request a list of the chemicals used and research each one – the term “green” isn’t regulated, so make sure it they are using more natural cleaning agents.

8.  Choose organic produce when you can

Did you know that as many as 59 pesticides have been detected in the residue on certain strawberries?  Choosing organic can be expensive, but as more research is published the dangers of pesticides is becoming more evident.  Especially for children.  Pound for pound, children are exposed to more toxins than adults often at critical points in their development.  Use the EWG’s Dirty Dozen and Clean Fifteen list to help decide which fruits and veggies are worth the expense to go organic, and which ones you can purchase conventional.

9.  Replace plastic food containers with glass

We all grew up with plastic storage containers.  Unfortunately, we now know many plastics contain harmful chemicals that can leach into our food, especially when heated in the microwave.  Get to know the “safer” plastics (indicated by a number inside a triangle usually on the bottom of the container).  The safer plastic choices are coded 1, 2, 4, and 5.  Avoid 3, 6, and most plastics labeled with number 7.  Avoid microwaving your food in any plastic containers, and throw away any that are cracked or damaged.  You can also avoid plastic completely and use glass containers like these.

10.  Switch to a reusable steel or glass water bottle

Buying water bottles equals more plastic and more expense!  It is possible for the chemicals in plastic water bottles to leach out, especially if the bottle heats up (for example in the sun).  A steel or glass water bottle is a great option, and will save you some money (that you can spend on more organic produce!).  Why pay for water when you can use your own tap (filtered, of course!).

11.  Clean up your beauty routine

What goes on your body, goes in.  It’s important to read the ingredients of your personal care products and avoid many of the chemicals used in conventional products…chemicals linked to neurologic disorders, endocrine disruptors, and even cancer.  This is particularly important for tees and preteens who often use more products than adults, at a time when they are still developing.  Read more here:  14 Things I Wish I Knew At 14 About Beauty.  You can download a cheat sheet of ingredients to avoid here.

While pressure is on for new legislation, you can make simple changes today to significantly decrease exposure to toxic chemicals.  You don’t have to do all these things, one hundred percent of the time!  Small changes will make a difference.

Do you have tips to add?  We would all love to hear them!  Leave it in the comments below so we can all do more to protect our families today.


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  1. It’s soooo crazy how many chemicals we are exposed to on a daily basis. Coming from Hawaii, we take our shoes off before we come into the house, so it’s kind of nice that people expect that when they visit!

    • I agree, Desiree! We track so much “stuff” around on our shoes… it really makes sense to leave them at the door!

  2. Very helpful list Liane. I didn’t know about the thermal receipt. I knew I didn’t like them!

    • Silvia, the receipts were a surprise to me, too! I have actually used old ones in my purse to blot my lipstick… yikes!! Not any more 🙂

  3. Great advice! I have been working to do most of these tips in my life! I have the hardest time with beauty produces…there just aren’t as many choices.

    • Emma, I know what you mean! I LOVE luxurious products that really work.. without the toxins! I have some favorite brands: Acure, Odacite, 100% Pure are a few… they are natural, but still work really well. Let me know if you try any, and what you think!

  4. This is a great roundup of things we unfortunately need to be aware of these days. As a makeup artist, I had no idea how many chemicals were in the products I used every day that were affecting my health…and my kids!

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