Landmark research review is the first to examine disparities in neurotoxic exposures and the harmful effects of those exposures on children by race, ethnicity, and economic status
WASHINGTON, D.C., September 27, 2023—Children from families with low incomes and families of color are exposed to more neurotoxic chemicals and experience greater harm that impacts brain development and contributes to developmental delays according to a review of more than 200 studies published today in the peer-reviewed journal, Environmental Health Perspectives (EHP). The study is titled “Disparities in Toxic Chemical Exposures and Associated Neurodevelopmental Outcomes: A Scoping Review and Systematic Evidence Map of the Epidemiological Literature.”
Neurotoxic chemicals include but are not limited to lead, particulate matter, organophosphate pesticides, PBDE flame retardants, PCBs, and phthalates in air, water, soil, food, food packaging, and plastics.
“As a result of discriminatory practices and policies, families with low incomes and families of color are currently and historically disproportionately exposed to chemicals without their knowledge or consent where they live, work, play, pray, and learn,” says co-Lead Author Devon C. Payne-Sturges, Project TENDR member and associate professor, University of Maryland School of Public Health. “Their neighborhoods are more likely to be located near factories, chemical plants, superfund sites, highways and more vehicle traffic, or by agricultural fields where pesticides are applied. Our study demonstrates children from families experiencing higher exposures are also experiencing greater health and developmental challenges and that when these exposures are reduced, the neurological health of children of color improves.”
Additional findings confirmed by the author’s analysis of studies that measured neurotoxic exposures by sociodemographic and socioeconomic factors include:
● Low-income and Black children had higher exposures to lead.
● Children in communities of color and low-income communities were more highly exposed to air pollution.
● Black and Hispanic children were exposed to higher levels of organophosphate pesticides.
● Black and Hispanic mothers had higher levels of phthalates — neurotoxic chemicals in everyday plastics such as food and drink packaging, and in personal care products like shampoos and body washes.
The studies that looked further found greater impacts to brain development for those children experiencing high exposures. For example:
● Babies living in economically disinvested neighborhoods in their first year of life and exposed to air pollution were more likely to be diagnosed with autism.
● Low socioeconomic status magnified the harmful effects of lead exposure on children’s cognitive function.
● Air pollution exposures were associated with more adverse Performance IQ scores among children from lower-income families.
● Air pollution exposures were associated with worse memory functioning scores among Hispanic and Black boys with exposure to high prenatal stress.
“We need more stringent environmental standards to address pollution that is disproportionately impacting low-income communities and communities of color,” says co- Lead Author Tanya Khemet Taiwo, Project TENDR member and Bastyr University Midwifery Department assistant professor. “But, it’s just as important that we find a way to improve the unjust systems and social policies that create harmful conditions in the first place. As researchers, we can contribute by better documenting how and why children living in poverty and children of color are suffering the greatest harms. And, researchers and policymakers need to collaborate with communities to learn from their experience and expertise, and support locally-driven solutions.”
Project TENDR, a program of The Arc, is an alliance of more than 50 leading scientists, health professionals, and advocates focused on protecting children from toxic chemicals and pollutants harmful to brain development, and on eliminating disproportionate exposures to children of color and children from low-wealth communities.
The authors of the paper found that despite decades of evidence that families with low incomes and families of color are more highly exposed to neurotoxic chemicals, most researchers failed to examine how race, ethnicity, and economic hardship interact with those exposures to produce differing outcomes. When scientists do investigate those interactions, they find toxic chemical exposures are more strongly associated with learning, attention, and behavior problems for children in families that are also exposed to social and economic adversities. Additionally, the research review yielded a conspicuous lack of studies that examined the exposures and neurodevelopmental outcomes among American Indian, Alaska Native, and Asian American communities.
Numerous environmental justice groups such as the Alaska Community Action on Toxics, Alianza Nacional de Campesinas, and Farmworker Association of Florida, Inc have been collaborating with communities to address the impacts of exposure to toxins. They partner with diverse groups around the country, including Black and Hispanic communities, tribes and Indigenous populations, and farmworker families, to better protect children’s health through shared research and education and collaborative organizing and advocacy.
To complement grassroots initiatives, the authors of the review call on all levels of government to limit, lower, and eliminate existing pollution levels and toxic chemical use (including pesticides); halt locating and permitting new chemical and plastics manufacturing plants in or near communities of color and low-income communities; and enact stronger workplace protections.
“FDA and EPA can act now — not later — to protect families from neurotoxic chemicals by banning phthalates from food contact materials; eliminating lead from residential environments, aviation gas, and children’s foods; ending the use of organophosphate pesticides and setting air pollution standards to protect child brain development,” said Dr. Payne-Sturges, who was a policy specialist at EPA for 12 years.
The study’s authors, all of whom are Project TENDR researchers, reviewed 212 studies spanning five decades from 1974 to 2022. The review included studies that examined children ages 0-18, seven neurotoxic chemicals, and a wide array of neurodevelopmental outcomes.
In addition to the study, EHP published an Invited Perspective, to offer context on the review, from Aisha Dickerson, PhD, MSPH, an assistant professor at Johns Hopkins and researcher who studies environmental exposures and their disproportionate impact on autism and dementia risks in underserved communities across the lifespan.