Environmental Health in Early Childhood: Why It Matters

This blog is the first in our five-part series on philanthropic strategies for preventing and reducing childhood exposure to harmful chemicals. To learn more, see our corresponding funder brief, Ensure a Healthy Start.

Why Invest In Environmental Health in Early Childhood?

No discussion of early childhood development is complete without exploring the connection between a child’s exposure to harmful chemicals and the adverse health consequences that follow. Research shows that normal prenatal and early childhood brain development depends upon a complex series of critical, sequential, and highly orchestrated processes. Exposure to toxic chemicals such as lead, methylmercury, and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), disrupts these processes, and has been linked to adverse childhood neurological and behavioral outcomes including ADHD and loss of IQ. The good news is that funders can help ensure a healthy start for children by preventing and reducing these early exposures.

Why Now?

Early childhood is a unique time of life, when children’s bodies – especially their brains – are developing rapidly. The most acute stages of human neurological development begin in the womb and continue through age two, a period increasingly referred to as “the first 1,000 days.”[1] While children’s brains continue to develop into adulthood, influences on this earliest period of brain development, including maternal health during pregnancy, can have particularly profound and lifelong effects.[2]  Put differently, our children need a safe and healthy start and without one, they can miss critical opportunities to thrive and become productive members of our communities. While there are many factors that contribute to a safe and healthy start for children, here we’re focusing on creating a safe environment for kids by minimizing childhood exposure to harmful chemicals.

An Evolving Field:

Numerous other chemicals have evidence of associated negative physiological and neurological impacts and have drawn increased concern from scientists, economists, and health advocates alike. Examples include pesticides, flame retardants, TCE and other organic solvents, and more. To learn more about other potentially harmful chemicals not included in this Funder Brief, see sixclasses.org, the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, and Mount Sinai Hospital’s list of environmental toxins.

Chemicals are everywhere—in the air we breathe, the food and beverages we eat and drink, and the products we use. Many are instrumental in improving the quality of our lives. However, out of the 80,000 chemicals registered for use in the U.S., only an estimated 200 have had testing for human health impacts.[3]  Moreover, there is a small, but powerful subset of those chemicals that have been identified as toxic to the human nervous system. Three of these toxic chemicals that are among the most thoroughly investigated in extensive animal and human studies: lead, methylmercury, and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs).[4] Not only are these chemicals well-studied, but they are also among the most pervasive. A recent study in the U.S. found lead, methylmercury, and PCBs in 96%, 89%, and 100% of children[5], respectively, and in more than 80% of pregnant women.[6] These chemicals present a significant risk for children and pregnant moms everywhere.

Funders can help prevent and reduce childhood exposure to harmful chemicals by eliminating these exposures in built, consumer, and natural environments, by advocating for improved policies and regulations, and by supporting research and innovation to further assess chemicals whose effects have not yet been fully tested.

Next up in this series: Advocate for Better Policy & Practice. To learn more, check out our funder brief, Ensure a Healthy Start: Prevent and Reduce Childhood Exposure to Harmful Chemicals.

[1] Andersen, S. L. (2003). Trajectories of brain development: point of vulnerability or window of opportunity?  Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews, 27, 3–18. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/ pubmed/12732219

[2] Grandjean, P. et al. (2008). The Faroes Statement: Human Health Effects of Developmental Exposure to Chemicals in Our Environment. Basic & Clinical Pharmacology & Toxicology, 102, 73–75. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18226057.

[3] Denison, R. A. (2009). Ten Essential Elements in TSCA Reform. Washington, DC. Retrieved from https://www.edf. org/sites/default/les/9279_Denison_10_Elements_TSCA_Reform_0.pdf.

[4] Woodruff, T., & Iino-Rubenstein, L. (2014). Environmental Chemical Exposure & Children’s Neurological Health Outcomes. University of California, San Francisco.

[5] Lanphear, B. P. (2015). The Impact of Toxins on the Developing Brain. Annual Review of Public Health, 36, 211–230 . https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev-publhealth-031912-114413.

[6] Woodruff, J. M. et al. (2011). Environmental chemicals in pregnant women in the United States: NHANES 2003-2004. Environ Health Perspect, 119, 878–885. https://doi.org/10.1289/ehp.1002727.