An urgent call to prevent harm to children’s brain development

Children in Alaska are especially vulnerable to chemical exposures that may affect their present and future lives. Compelling scientific evidence links exposures to certain toxic chemicals with learning and developmental disabilities.

The north is a hemispheric sink for persistent chemicals that are transported on wind and ocean currents and accumulate in the bodies of fish, wildlife, and people. Also, our homes are insulated and closed against the cold for much of the year, thus exposing children to harmful chemicals that are released into the indoor environment from household products such as electronics, furniture, toys, building materials and through combustion sources. Contributing to the problem are the hundreds of hazardous waste sites associated with military and industrial operations, as well as poorly managed landfills, burn boxes and incinerators.

On July 1, a unique collaboration of leading scientists, health professionals and children's health advocates issued a historic scientific consensus statement in the journal National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences about the harm to children's brain development associated with exposures to certain toxic chemicals prevalent in our homes, air, water and food. This collaborative effort, Project TENDR (Targeting Environmental Neurodevelopmental Risks) first convened in 2015 because of our concern about the now substantial scientific evidence linking toxic chemicals to neurodevelopmental disorders such as intellectual and learning disabilities, autism spectrum disorder and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). The consensus statement is an urgent call to action for elected officials, agency policymakers and businesses to take a new approach in protecting our children's health and to ensure that all children can reach their fullest potential.

Project TENDR is led by co-directors Maureen Swanson, leader of the Healthy Children Project of the Learning Disabilities Association of America, and Irva Hertz-Picciotto, professor of epidemiology and environmental health at UC Davis Department of Public Health Sciences. I was honored to be invited by Ms. Swanson and Dr. Hertz-Picciotto to be a part of Project TENDR and agreed to participate because of my concern about the special vulnerability of Alaska's children.

The consensus statement highlights examples of chemicals and pollutants that are contributing to children's learning, intellectual and behavioral impairment, including organophosphate pesticides, polybrominated diphenyl ether (PBDE) flame retardants, combustion-related air pollutants, which generally include polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), nitrogen dioxide and particulate matter, lead, mercury, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs).

Alaska's elected officials and policymakers should heed the call for urgent action. And the public in Alaska has some important opportunities to hold our elected officials and agency policymakers accountable. This year, the Alaska Legislature failed to pass the Toxic-Free Children's Act (Senate Bill 111/House Bill 199) introduced by Sen. Bill Wielechowski and Rep. Harriet Drummond. This act would have prevented the use of 10 flame-retardant chemicals in children's products and toys. These include PBDEs and other toxic chemicals that are known to be associated with learning and developmental disabilities, cancer and reproductive impairment. The chemicals confer no proven fire safety benefits and make household fires more toxic and dangerous for first responders. The Toxic-Free Children's Bill is widely supported by such groups as the Alaska Professional Firefighters Association, Alaska Fire Chiefs Association, Alaska Nurses Association, the Alaska Federation of Natives, the Alaska School Nurses Association and The Arc of Anchorage. We hope that Alaskans will contact their legislators in advance of the next session and that this important measure to protect children's health will pass in 2017.

The Governor's Council on Disabilities and Special Education recently prepared a draft of a state five-year plan that includes important goals concerning services, employment, early intervention, education and health care. It is imperative for the council to include an additional goal of reducing and eliminating exposures to chemicals that contribute to neurodevelopmental harm, thereby focusing on prevention and protection of the developing brains of children.


We welcome everyone who has concern about children's health to participate in a Children's Environmental Health Summit on Oct. 5 and 6, 2016, at Alaska Pacific University in Anchorage. (For more information and to register, go to www.akaction.org.) The purpose of the gathering, convened by Alaska Community Action on Toxics, is to bring scientists, health care professionals, tribal leaders, policymakers, teachers, parents, students and advocates together to discuss the latest science and develop recommendations for policy actions to protect the health of children. Several of the scientists and health professionals who have been a part of Project TENDR will be speaking at the summit. This summit will address environmental health and health disparities of children "at the top of the world" and ways that we can work together to ensure healthy homes, child-care facilities, schools and communities. Together, we will develop recommendations for actions that must be taken to improve the health of current and future generations of Alaska children in the areas of education, policy reform, health care, research and prevention.

Pamela Miller is executive director of Alaska Community Action on Toxics.