Which Toxic Chemicals Can Damage Children’s Brain Development?

Which Toxic Chemicals Can Damage Children’s Brain Development?

All parents are aware that so many of our children face the risk of serious cognitive troubles, and are on the lookout especially in the first year of life for their baby reaching certain milestones.

The threat of developing various degrees of autism spectrum disorders, of experiencing ADHD, or of struggling with a variety of learning disorders is all too present. We are aware.

Is There a Link Between Autism and Toxic Chemical Exposure?

A group of the nation’s most distinguished experts in epidemiology and the toxicology of various chemicals, have teamed together to publish real evidence that neurodevelopmental disorders can be caused by exposure to certain chemicals.

To make this urgently important issue more clear, we make poisons that damage our baby’s developing brains, causing autism spectrum disorder, ADHD, and learning disorders.

This is a very hard point to prove. We all are constantly exposed to a wide range of chemicals, how do you know which if any cause complex events like the development of autism, or of ADHD, or of learning disorders? Determining if this happens, or not, turns out to take decades of hard work, of careful science on the nature of each chemical, and of careful science on the epidemiology of the impact of exposure.

Project TENDR (Targeting Environmental Neurodevelopmental Risks)

Thanks to Dr. Irva Hertz-Picciotto of the University of California, Davis, and Ms. Maureen Swanson of the Learning Disabilities Association of America, over 50 of the nation’s top scientists who have devoted decades of work to these questions have joined forces in an effort called Project TENDR. TENDR stands for Targeting Environmental Neurodevelopmental Risks. I was honored to be invited to serve on the Organizing Committee of Project TENDR at its inception.

The approach of Project TENDR was to start with identifying a handful of chemicals where the evidence they play a role in causing neurodevelopmental disorders was clear and compelling.

In July of 2016, the Project published its findings in one of the nation’s top environmental health journals, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/27479987. You can read it here: http://projecttendr.com/consensus-statement/. 

In March of 2021, Project TENDR members published a new study that focuses specifically on the link between toxic chemicals and long-lasting neurodevelopmental harm in fetuses, infants and children.You can read it here: https://ajph.aphapublications.org/doi/full/10.2105/AJPH.2020.306014 

There are about 85,000 chemicals that industry has released into our air and water that are in many of our bodies across the country, and world. The Consensus Statement from Project TENDR identified six chemicals, or categories of chemicals, for which clear evidence exists that we need to curtail exposure, or continue to see our children’s minds poisoned, here are the six:




-PBDE (Polybrominated Diphenyl Ethers) Flame Retardants

-Combustion-related Air Pollution

-PCB’s (Polychlorinated Biphenyls)

A brief word on each...


Lead poisoning can drop a whole population’s IQ. The elimination of lead in car and truck gasoline and home paints cut the level of lead poisoning dramatically. It is thought that roughly 60% of the drop in American crime was due to the dramatic drop in lead in our bodies. But lead is still around. All the lead that entered the soil while it was in our car’s gasoline and our home’s paint, is still there. And lead remains in the gasoline the fuels our farm equipment and airplanes. Lead damages brains, particularly developing brains, it plays a role in causing autism, ADHD, and learning disorders even today.


Mercury continues to be a favored pollutant in the United States. Mercury remains present in the waste of many industrial processes, including in the coal and oil industries. The first Tea Party candidate to run for Congress ran partly to end rules that would keep industry in his District from dumping mercury into the water supply to the people of that District. Mercury damages brains, particularly developing brains, it plays a role in causing autism, ADHD, and learning disorders even today.

Organophosphate Pesticides (e.g., Chlorpyrifos)

The phrase organophosphate insecticides is far less familiar than words like lead and mercury, but it’s important for anyone concerned about their children’s minds to know about this phrase. The concept is straightforward, insecticides are chemicals used to kill insects that eat our crops and spread disease. Some of the first insecticides worked by destroying the nervous system of insects.This was plausible because bugs are so much smaller than us, we could apply a small dose to crops, kill off all the insects and hope the amount we humans got exposed to would leave our nervous system alone. Unfortunately, at least one type of insecticide, the organophosphate type, does cause damage to human brains. One brand of this type of insecticide, malathion, is actually sold as a drug, Ovid, to rub on kids’ hair to rid them of lice. But even if your doctor never makes the mistake of prescribing such a drug, other types of organophosphate insecticides are around, on our food. The most famous of these is a compound called chlorpyrifos. Like all chemicals that can damage brains, it takes many years to figure out if they do. The case against chlorpyrifos is compelling and well-established. A few years ago it led the EPA to ban its use. Just this year, the EPA has struck down this ban, inviting agriculture to apply this known poison to our children’s brains to once again be on our strawberries and other fruit. Organophosphate insecticides damage brains, particularly developing brains, it plays a role in causing autism, ADHD, and learning disorders even today.

Flame Retardants (PBDE)

PBDE flame retardants bring to mind kids’ pajamas. And they are in some textiles. But the real exposure comes from the plastic, often black plastic, of our computers and cell phones and furnitures and mattresses that contain foams. These chemicals evaporate from our computers, cell phones, couches, and mattresses. Nearly everyone has PBDE flame retardants in their blood, even if there are no kids’ pajamas in the house. PBDE flame retardants damage brains, particularly developing brains, it plays a role in causing autism, ADHD, and learning disorders even today.

Combustion related air pollution should be a problem of the past. It is better today than the era of American smog. But air pollution from cars, trucks, and airplanes, and from combusting industry still puts chemicals in the air that poison our developing children. Combustion related air pollution damages brains, particularly developing brains, it plays a role in causing autism, ADHD, and learning disorders even today.


PCB’s are a group of chemicals once widely used in industry, but since 1977 have been banned. They remain a problem because up to 1977, industry has released more than 1.25 billion pounds into our air and water. Essentially all 1.25 billion pounds of PCB’s remain there today, and most people walking around have levels of PCB’s in their blood and tissues. PCB’s damage brains, particularly developing brains, it plays a role in causing autism, ADHD, and learning disorders even today.

What to Do?

In many ways, it would be far nicer to find that only immunizations cause autism, ADHD, and learning disorders even today. Then the solution would be very easy, stop immunizing until we devise immunizations that don’t cause this harm. But this nice story turns out not to be available, since it’s not true.

Instead, the facts tell us that we know for sure that at least 6 major categories of chemicals do indeed poison and damage our children’s developing brains.

The only way for this not to happen is to stop releasing these poisons into our air and water. The only way to avoid the damage from a poison, is to not be exposed to it.

Most of these chemicals can only be eliminated by industry, but some are within our reach. Taking steps to reduce our exposure to lead are available. Exposure to PBDE flame retardants can be reduced through careful purchase of furniture and mattresses. And exposure to all insecticides can be reduced by buying certified organic.

But the fate of our children’s minds really rests in our ability to work with industry to stop further exposure and to clean up established sources.

We tend to think of autism spectrum disorders, ADHD, and learning disorders as events dictated by forces beyond our control. They seem to be expressions of genetic destiny, and have nothing to do with any action. But the decades of work of the scientists of Project TENDR now make it impossible to avoid a very, very painful truth, we are indeed poisoning our children’s minds, we must decide to stop, or neurodevelopmental disorders will only continue to become more frequent. Our children wait for us to act.


  1. There is good evidence that something is making more children suffer abnormalities of the development of their mind.
  2. 50 of the nation’s top epidemiologists and toxicologists have joined forces to share findings of work done over a many decade period, and the verdict is clear: there are chemicals in our world that we breathe and swallow that can cause autism spectrum disorder, ADHD, and/or learning disorders.
  3. Six of these have been identified: lead, mercury, pesticides (organophosphate), flame retardants (PBDE), air pollution, and PCB’s.
  4. It is time we determined why our children’s minds are being harmed and to stop these causes from continuing to hurt our families.

About Dr. Arthur Lavin:

Arthur Lavin, MD, FAAP, a pediatrician in private practice and an associate clinical professor of pediatrics at Case Medical School in Cleveland, Ohio.

Dr. Lavin has special interests in neuroscience. He sits on the national committee of the American Academy of Pediatrics charged with developing policy for the Academy on matters relating to psychological functioning. Dr. Lavin was the first doctor in the United States to make neuroscience proven working memory training available in the United States

He is the co-author of two books on parenting: Who’s the Boss? Moving Families from Conflict to Collaboration (2nd Ed., Collaboration Press, 2010) and Babies and Toddlers Sleep Solutions for Dummies (Kindle Edition, Wiley, 2007).

Dr. Lavin was trained and taught at Harvard and MIT, including training by Dr. T. Berry Brazelton. He has served on a number of national committees of the American Academy of Pediatrics, and published original research in such journals as Science.

Dr. Lavin is married and has three children, one married and two identical twins.

Dr. Arthur Lavin

Associate Clinical Professor of Pediatrics

Advanced Pediatrics

3733 Park East Drive- Suite 102

Beachwood, OH 44122

216-591-1515 (Office)

216-591-1544 (Fax)




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