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How do you put something invisible on your to-do list?

You have to make the invisible visible. For example, lead exposure to children who were under the age of 6 in 2006 will result in a total income loss of between $165 and $233 billion

The combined current exposure levels of pesticides, mercury, and lead, cause IQ losses amounting to around $120 billion annually—or about three percent of the annual budget of the U.S. government.

Exposure to lead and other toxicants that act like lead can have a wide range of visible effects on a child's development and behavior. Even when exposed to small amounts of lead levels, children may appear inattentive, hyperactive, and irritable. Children with greater lead levels may also have problems with learning and reading, delayed growth, and hearing loss. 

Brain development  — and the substances that significantly harm its development, like lead and other toxicants  — historically isn’t a part of everyday conversations.

However, brain development deserves a place alongside other baby milestones, like sitting up and speaking. During the first few years of life, more than 1 million new neural connections are formed every second. By age two, almost all of the billions of brain cells that you will ever have are in place. 

Except in the hippocampus and one or two other tiny regions, the brain does not grow new brain cells throughout your life. When brain cells die, they are gone. So its initial months of formation, when the brain is most vulnerable, are critical. 

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During this sensitive time, exposure can cause permanent brain injury at low levels that would have little or no adverse effect in an adult. Toxic stress damages developing brain architecture, which can lead to lifelong problems in learning, behavior, and physical and mental health. 

In an unprecedented consensus statement published in the peer-reviewed journal, Environmental Health Perspectives (2016), leading experts in the field agree scientific evidence firmly supports a link between exposures to toxic chemicals in food, air, and everyday products and children’s risks for neurodevelopmental disorders.

One in six American kids has a neurodevelopmental disorder, spanning intellectual disability, autism spectrum disorder, attention deficits, hyperactivity, and learning disabilities.

“Our very great concern is that children worldwide are being exposed to unrecognized toxic chemicals that are silently eroding intelligence, disrupting behaviors, truncating future achievements and damaging societies.” 

—  Dr. Philippe Grandjean, Professor & Chair of Environmental Medicine, University of Southern Denmark, and Dr. Philip Landrigan, Professor & Director of the Global Public Health Program, Boston College

What can we do and what should we do to ensure a healthy start for the brain?

These top actions are a good place to start. They address significant exposure sources and will help protect babies from harmful exposures that can harm neurological development.

For Individuals

  • Filter your tap water. A simple carbon filter or pitcher will reduce the most common contaminants like lead and toxic byproducts of water disinfection.
  • If you have a baby, avoid infant rice cereal and rice-based snacks. Avoid serving any one food day after day; this can accidentally concentrate a particular contaminant in your baby’s diet. Serve a variety instead. See 5 top tips here.
  • If you live in a home built before 1978, you may have lead paint. The dust and paint chips are toxic, especially to children. Repair any damaged paint surfaces using EPA’s lead-safe guide.


For Cities

  • Replace lead service lines in your water distribution system. A place to start identifying required funding is the Local Infrastructure Hub’s Grants Database.
  • Increase your city’s tree canopy to help mitigate heat and air pollutants that can pose risks to babies’ health.
  • Educate residents about choosing healthy foods during pregnancy and early childhood to protect babies’ neurological development. How? Download and share HBBF’s parent guides.



Questions? Contact Kyra Naumoff Shields, PhD, Bright Cities Program Director at knaumoff@hbbf.org.

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