Infant Development and Toxins

With all of the available information about environmental toxins, it can be overwhelming as a parent trying to figure out the best way to protect your children. Learning and developmental disabilities (LDD) affect millions of children born each year in the United States. These numbers appear to be on the rise. Many children face some form of LDD due to parental alcohol, tobacco and drug use. Some neurodevelopmental delays can be caused by exposure to toxicants like mercury, pesticides, solvents and lead.

Exposure to a wide variety of chemicals is now an unavoidable element of modern living. We have little information on most of these chemicals and their potential to impact learning and development. This is due to the lack of developmental neurotoxicity testing (DNT). Children who are deficient in certain nutrients, like iron, can be at a higher risk for toxicity. Thus, nutrition can play an important role in decreasing the effects of the environmental toxins.

The effects of alcohol on the brain are well recognized. Fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS) is the most preventable form of behavioral and learning disabilities. Since there is no established safe alcohol level during pregnancy, it is best not to drink any alcohol while expecting. Even low or moderate consumption of alcohol during pregnancy can cause subtle and/or permanent performance deficits [Source: Tyler].

The developmental delays caused by tobacco smoke are costly and preventable. Nicotine constricts blood vessels, causing infants born to mothers who smoke to be smaller than average. Sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) is also five times higher in infants exposed to smoke while in the womb. If secondhand smoke exposure persists, the child is more likely to have asthma, upper respiratory infections and ear infections. Many studies also link maternal smoking to behavior disorders in children [Source: Tyler].

Mercury impairs functions such as thought processing, memory and fine motor skills. It is present in coal and dental fillings. Some other sources of mercury include large fish like shark, swordfish, king mackerel and tilefish. Fish in general should be limited to two servings a week to decrease mercury exposure.

Pesticides are everywhere in our modern environment. Childhood exposure to pesticides, such as organophosphates, can enhance the risk for developmental disorders including deficits in memory and motor performance.

During childbearing years, women should avoid work or hobbies that will expose them to lead. Lead levels over 10 microgram/deciliter are the point of reference for concern, but there might not be a safe lead level. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention recommends checking lead levels at 1 and 2 years of age.

Unfortunately, it is impossible to address all the chemicals that might be associated with LDDs. Environmental toxins start to accumulate while growing in the womb and continue throughout adulthood. These exposures are numerous and can result in behavioral disorders. It is important to be informed about what your children are exposed to and to stay educated about the toxic exposures that are in many everyday products. The following are suggestions to help decrease your children’s exposure.

  1. Avoid tobacco smoke, drugs and drinking alcohol during pregnancy.
  2. Do not microwave foods in plastic containers.
  3. Use water and air filters.
  4. Avoid using pesticides.
  5. Use fluoride-free products.
  6. Use natural cleaners that do not contain harmful solvents.
  7. Optimize an anti-inflammatory diet by eating lots of fruits and vegetables to help counter toxins, choose to eat organic foods and avoid processed foods that contain artificial colors and ingredients.

Lots More Information

Sources

  • Tyler, CV., White-Scott, S., Ekvall, S., Abulafia, L. (2008). Environmental health and developmental disabilities a life span approach. Fam Community Health, 31(4):287-304.
  • Scientific Consensus Statement on Environmental Agents Associated with Neurodevelopmental Disorder. (2008).