ADHD, Autism, Oppositional Defiant Disorder, Conduct Disorder, Dyslexia and PDDNOS (Pervasive Developmental Disorder Not Otherwise Specified) are being proven by researchers all over the world to stem from the environment. Toxins interrupt the healthy development of children, diminish quality of life, reduce academic achievement and disturb behaviour, with profound consequences for entire societies.

Neurodevelopmental disorders of children are rising at an alarming rate around the world. Researcher from Harvard School of Public Health Doctor Phillipe Grandjean, and Doctor Landrigan of New York’s Mount Sinai, say that “disorders of neurobehavioural development affect 10 -15 per cent of all births”.

These toxins have been studied since the 70s, but the revelations are just coming to light. A lack of ‘scientific data’ does not mean that a chemical is safe. Grandjean and Landrigan say that more neurotoxicants remain undiscovered which is important to be aware of, if we are to start preventing these disorders.

A recent study in Lancet Neurology correlates developmental problems with chemicals that are found in our homes, water, food and air. These chemicals are known carcinogens, but they are much more than that. These chemicals are capable of drastically changing children’s lives. They are neurotoxicants (capable of causing damage to brain development) contributing to a ‘silent pandemic’ of mental deficits that is eroding intelligence, disrupting behaviors, and damaging societies. Signs of real strain are appearing as schools and families are trying to cope with the extra needs of children. Up to 75 per cent of couples who have a significantly affected child, have relationship break-ups.

What can be done?

To help create a global awareness, Forbes has created a list of the important toxic chemicals that affect childhood development:

  • LEAD – Consistently linked to serious deficits, including low IQ. The effects seem to be permanent and there is no safe level of exposure. Many children’s toys still are made with lead products! Lead also makes it into our drinking water – many pipes have been soldered using lead. Water and soil sources are still contaminated by lead because of improper disposal. 

Symptoms of lead toxicity: Low IQ, behavioural problems, attention problems, hearing problems, kidney damage, delayed physical growth, aggressive behavior, difficulty sleeping, headaches, irritability, low appetite, energy, and reduced sensations.

Preventive measures: Use a good quality water filter, buy organic food, check your water pipes, avoid old paint, buy unpainted wooden toys, be aware of sources of lead in your environment.

  • MERCURY – Affects neurological development of the foetus. A significant exposure is from intake during pregnancy of fish containing high levels of mercury, such as tuna. One form of mercury, ‘thiomersal’ is used in many vaccines. Silver fillings (amalgams) from the dentist contain mercury. Toxicity from amalgams can be passed to the growing foetus.

Symptoms of mercury toxicity: Developmental defects in children such as cerebral palsy and skeletal issues, where the growth of the head is limited.

Preventive measures: Limit the amount of fish intake and avoid deep-sea fish. Anchovies and sardines are small, surface fish that absorb less mercury. Ask about the constituents of vaccines.

  • POLYCHLORINATED BIPHENYLS (PCB’s) – are chemicals used in coolant fluids in electrical apparatus, cutting fluids for machining operations, and carbonless copy paper. Due to their environmental toxicity, PCB production was banned by the United States Congress in 1979. After PCBs were banned, they were marketed with over 100 different trade names. They accumulate through the food chain and cause adverse effects to human health and the environment. They are listed under the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants for phasing out and eventual elimination. PCBs cause cancer in animals and humans and are associated with reduced cognitive function in toddlers and young children. They can be found in foods such as fish, and in breast milk. Due to improper disposal in landfills and incineration, PCBs are recycled in the ground, air and water, so remain in the environment. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) set a 0% safety level for all drinking water, but have raised this to 0.05% due to the amount in our hydrosphere.

Symptoms of PCB toxicity: PCB mimics the female hormone oestrodial and is linked with neurodevelopmental disorders in children. They have been shown to cause breast, uterine, and cervical cancers. PCBs can be passed through breast milk from mother to child.

Preventive measures: Eat organically grown food, use a good quality water filter. 

  • ARSENIC – is used as a wood preservative and in some drug and body products. The EPA warns that Arsenic is still being released through different agricultural applications and is still found in water supplies.

Symptoms of Arsenic toxicity: Arsenic has been linked to reduced cognitive function in schoolchildren.

Preventive measures: Avoid insecticides, use organic body products, avoid treated wood in food-growing areas and playgrounds. Wash hands before eating.

  • TOLUENE – is a solvent found in paints, thinners, silicone sealants, rubber, printing ink, glues, lacquers and disinfectants.  The EPA warns: “The highest concentrations of toluene occur in indoor air from the use of common household products including synthetic fragrances, nail polish and cigarette smoke. It is used as a raw material for glue that children use for basic crafts.

Symptoms of exposure to Toluene: Toluene directly affects the brain and spinal cord i.e. the central nervous system. Maternal exposure has been linked to brain development problems and attention deficits in children.

Preventive measures: Buy with awareness – read labels and choose non-toxic ink products and glues for children. Buy eco paints with low or no VOCs (volatile organic compounds). Use Toluene-containing products in open air and wear a top quality mask, wear gloves when handling and wash hands after use, before eating or playing with children. Use natural essential oils instead of perfumes. Check labels for ‘fragrance’, which could mean the use of a number of unknown chemicals. Use natural products like vinegar, soda bicarbonate and specially made cloths for cleaning.

  • MANGANESE –  A trace element important for good health, but in excess causes health issues. It is used for steel production and is found in engine exhaust fumes. 

Symptoms of manganese toxicity: High levels of manganese are shown to directly effect the central nervous system, causing difficult learning and memorising. It is linked to lower scores in mathematics, diminished intellectual function, and ADHD. It is known to damage sperm.

Preventive measures: Make healthy choices about where you live and spend your time.

  • FLUORIDE – is a naturally occurring mineral in the environment, including tea, wine, raisins, potatoes, lamb and carrots. Even so, it is added to many water supplies by governments around the world. No tests or assessments are conducted to check the fluoride levels accumulated in any members of the population.

Symptoms of fluoride toxicity: Research from Harvard University has linked fluoride to the lowering of IQ in children and has illustrated that fluoride is detrimental to brain development. High levels can lead to autism spectrum disorders and other mental issues.

Preventive measures: Use unfluoridated, spring or a high quality filter for your water supply (fluoride is difficult to remove, not all water filters remove fluoride). Check if medications contain fluoride. Have a urine test to check fluoride levels at a specialty lab. Employ gapped dental hygiene and a low-sugar diet.

PESTICIDES CHLORPYRIFOS and DDT – Insecticides that were banned internationally in the 1970s but still used in developing countries to control malaria. Humans ingest DDT from fruits and vegetables and it persists in the environment to this day. DDT is endemic in our environment – there is evidence of DDT residues from the North to South Poles.

Symptoms of chlorpyrifos and DDT toxicity: Exposure is linked to structural abnormalities of the brain and neurodevelopmental problems that persist up to age 7. They have also been linked to Alzheimer’s disease.

Preventive measures: Drink filtered water, eat organically grown food.

  • TETRACHLOROETHYLENE – Solvents that are found in dry cleaning liquids, spot removers, paint strippers and engine degreasers. When tested, nurses, chemists, cleaners, hairdressers, and beauticians have higher levels.

Symptoms of tetrachloroethylene toxicity: Hyperactivity, aggressive behaviour, and an increased risk of psychiatric diagnosis. The International Agency for Research on Cancer has shown it to be a carcinogen and a soil contaminant. Disposal contaminates soil and water.

Preventive measures: Use alternative methods for garment care, buy clothes that you can launder, avoid using industrial chemicals. Read labels and find alternative products. Keep children well away from tetrachloroethylene-containing products.

  • POLYBROMINATEDDIPHENYL ETHERS (PBDEs) – Used in flame retardants, PBDEs are used in many countries in soft furnishings, plastics of televisions and computers, insulation, carpet, furniture fabrics, foam products, mattresses, upholstery and internal fittings of motor vehicles. Approximately 80 different types of brominated flame retardants are used commercially. Mothers can pass high levels of the toxin to children through their breast milk.

Symptoms of exposure to PDDEs: PDBEs are believed to be neurotoxins. Prenatal exposure has been linked to neurodevelopmental disorders in  children. In one test, children with the highest amounts of PBDEs scored the lowest on cognitive tests at age four. Children with high levels of PBDE  showed consistent developmental delays from birth until age six.

Preventive measures: Impossible to avoid exposure. Purchase eco bedding (suppliers are on the increase) and avoid foam products. Make healthy choices when renovating. Insist on frequent hand washing in children. Drink plenty of filtered water. A diet rich in vitamin C and healthy gut flora aids the excretion of toxins. 


The Lancet Neurology

Living Traditionally

Organic Authority


United States Environmental Protection Agency

Collective Evolution

Boston University

Book: Slow Death By Rubber Duck by environmental scientists Rick Smith and Bruce Lourie. Believe it or not, this is a light-hearted look at the problem of environmental toxicity and how we can avoid it. The sequel, Toxin Toxout – Getting Harmful Chemicals Out of Our Bodies and Our Worlds focuses on solutions.