Flame retardants and pesticides are affecting brain development in children and leading to low IQs: Study

Researchers caution that people need to watch out for flame retardants, found in furniture and carpeting, and children's toys, and pesticides, as their impact on IQ rose from 67% to 81% in the recent years. They are overtaking heavy metals as the biggest contributors to IQ loss.

                            Flame retardants and pesticides are affecting brain development in children and leading to low IQs: Study
(Getty Images)

Children in the US have been losing out points in their intelligence tests, thanks to early exposure to toxic chemicals such as flame retardants, lead, organophosphates, and mercury, suggests new study.

These findings indicate that heavy metals such as lead and mercury are not the only most feared chemicals. We may have to watch out for flame retardants -- found in furniture, carpeting, children's toys -- and pesticides, as their impact on IQ rose from 67% to 81% in the recent years.

"Our findings suggest that our efforts to reduce exposure to heavy metals are paying off, but that toxic exposures in general continue to represent a formidable risk to Americans' physical, mental, and economic health," lead author Abigail Gaylord, a doctoral candidate in the Department of Population Health at NYU Langone, told Newsweek.

There are economic consequences to losing IQ. According to the researchers, IQ loss due to these chemicals resulted in the US losing around $6 trillion from 2001 to 2016.

"A kid's brain power is the engine of our economy. If a child comes back from school with one less IQ point, maybe mum or the parent might not notice. But if 100,000 children come back with one less IQ point, the entire economy notices," Leo Trasande, a pediatrician and public-health researcher at NYU and co-author of the study, told Business Insider.

Chemicals altering brain development

Earlier studies have suggested that these chemicals can cross the placental barrier and hamper brain development in children. Excluding lead, all the other tested chemicals reach the developing fetus in pregnant women. Once children are exposed, there is no looking back from its insidious effects, say the authors of the study.

"Kids' brain development is exquisitely vulnerable. If you disrupt, even with subtle effects, the way a child's brain is wired, you can have permanent and lifelong consequences,"  Trasande said.

 Exposure to pesticides resulted in a loss of nearly 27 million IQ points. (Getty Images)

To get an idea on the scale of damage to the developing brains, the team mined data from past studies. The team then calculated the loss of IQ points linked to exposure to these chemicals in the womb and in early life, between 2001 and 2016.

Flame retardants proved to be the most potent chemical among those tested, costing children a loss of 162 million IQ points, according to the study. Lead cost children 78 million IQ points, while pesticides and mercury resulted in a loss of nearly 27 million IQ points and 2.5 million IQ points, respectively.

This changing landscape -- flame retardants taking the mantle from heavy metals -- can be attributed to the phasing out of gasoline and painted gasoline, lead paint, and mercury emissions from coal-fired power plants. 

In 2004, the Environmental Protection Agency phased out flame retardants as well. But the chemical continues to linger and accumulate in the bodies of people through dust and food. Flame retardants have not been banned yet.

Such restrictions have helped. The team has found, from 2001 to 2016, IQ loss from flame retardants, lead and mercury has decreased or remained stagnant. "Our findings show that the reduction of chemical exposures in early life has already resulted in economic savings on the order of billions of dollars," the study claims. For now, however, people can take simple steps to keep themselves out of harm's way: opening windows so that dust laced with flame retardants can escape, vacuuming frequently and using a wet mop to sop up chemicals on the floors, Trasande said.

The study has been published in Molecular and Cellular Endocrinology.

Disclaimer : This article is for informational purposes only and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.