The Problem

Healthy Babies Bright Futures works to offer the next generation a toxic-free future. Reducing babies’ exposure to lead is one of the most important challenges that we’re tackling. But our work doesn’t stop with lead. We are working to reduce exposure to a number of toxic chemicals that have negative effects on babies’ brain development. Read more about:

What’s the Problem With Lead?

Health professionals and scientists now understand that there is no safe level of lead for humans. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warn that, “Even low levels of lead in blood have been shown to affect IQ, ability to pay attention, and academic achievement. And effects of lead exposure cannot be corrected.”

Lead exposure can come from many sources: Paint that was applied before 1978 (when lead-based paints were banned), toys, dishes, jewelry, candles, vinyl blinds as well as contaminated drinking water can all contribute to total lead exposures. See what the CDC says about lead.

Lead contamination in drinking water usually occurs while water is flowing through household plumbing. Without proper treatment, the poisonous metal can leach into water from a lead service line — the water pipe that carries water from the main pipe under the street into your home. This can also happen if the pipes have been joined together with lead solder or if the faucets contain lead.

The risk of lead contamination increases when the quality of water is more corrosive like it was when the City of Flint changed its water source to the Flint River. But other things can also cause the lead in pipes and solder to leach into the water. When pipes are knocked around, or when water isn’t run for a period of time, or when water usage is low, more lead particles can come out of the tap.

Older homes in older cities are particularly at risk. But even newer homes can have a lead problem. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (US EPA) did not set strong rules for lead in tap water pipes and faucets until 2011.

Lead is one of the important reasons that babies are in harm's way.

Babies are in harm's way

While tiny brains are forming and growing rapidly during the first 1,000 days, they are being harmed by these toxic “brain drain” chemicals all around them.

In the womb, the brain develops from a simple strip of cells to a complex organ “consisting of billions of precisely located, highly interconnected, and specialized cells.”[1] Lead was the first of many chemicals confirmed to disrupt this process, and is now known to stunt brain development, reduce IQ, and intensify aggression and other behavior problems later in life. Phasing it out of gasoline, paint and children’s toys led to a 2.2 to 4.7 point increase in IQ for children nationwide, according to scientists’ estimates.

Despite the gains, lead continues to contaminate the blood of nearly every child tested and at current levels of exposure is linked to the loss of 23 million total IQ points among children under five. Other chemicals cause additional harm. Scientists have measured IQ loss and increased rates of ADHD among children exposed in utero to higher levels of contaminants in water and food (perchlorate and mercury); air pollutants; PBDE flame retardants; plastic additives called phthalates; and the environmental pollutants PCBs. Studies suggest that “brain drain” chemicals can dissolve the protective myelin sheath around nerve cells, reduce the white matter in a child’s brain, and block the formation of synapses in the hippocampus, the brain’s center for memory and learning.

Healthy Babies Bright Futures came together because of the connection between two problems:

One is the prevalence of learning and behavior problems, including a dramatic increase in autism and attention deficit and hyperactivity disorders.
One in Six 1 in 6

children in the US has been diagnosed with a developmental disability.

One in Sixty Eight 1 in 68

children has an autism spectrum disorder.

The second is our shared vulnerability to the health impacts of untested and unregulated chemicals in our water, air, food and the products we use every day.
Begins In The Womb

Beginning in the womb, exposures to unregulated and under-regulated chemicals like lead, mercury, and arsenic can cause these lifelong limitations.

Babies Brain

When babies’ brains are rapidly forming during the first 1000 days of development –from conception to age 2- small exposures to toxic “brain drain” chemicals can cause great harm.


Exposure to toxic chemicals is so widespread and the impacts on brain development are so severe that leading scientists and doctors call it “a silent epidemic.”

How can an epidemic be silent?

Because the damage to the potential of children to learn and thrive rarely makes itself known through a fever or swelling or sudden pain. Instead, beginning in the womb, exposure to lead and other chemicals interferes with the delicate, complicated and miraculous process of wiring a baby’s brain.

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Scientists don’t completely understand how a baby in its mother’s womb generates thousands of brain cells every minute to build its brain and nervous system. But we do know that lead and other chemicals can get in the way of healthy brain building. And that tiny amounts of certain chemicals can cause great harm. And, most importantly, that if we prevent chemical exposures, we can prevent the harm that these chemicals can cause. That’s what Healthy Babies Bright Futures is all about.

The Science of “Brain Drain” Chemicals

Damage caused by “brain drain” chemicals that are common in our homes and environment can have lifelong consequences.

“Brain drain” chemicals are present in bodies of all pregnant women. Scientists have tested blood, breast milk and urine from hundreds of young women, and umbilical cord blood from many newborns. Results point to an unsettling and inescapable truth: toxic chemicals circulate in the body of every woman tested, and pollute every baby before birth.

“Brain drain” chemicals include:


Contaminates food, water, and backyards from its long-time use as a pesticide and its release from mines and industrial sites. Linked to IQ loss.

Flame retardants

Added to furniture, electronics, carpet and more. Widely contaminate house dust, food, and the human body. Concerns include IQ loss and ADHD.


Decades of use in gasoline and house paint left a legacy of polluted soil, contaminated homes, and toxic house dust. Lead damages the developing brain.


A global pollutant from coal-fired power plants, mines, and other sources that builds up in seafood. Eating low-mercury fish can reduce exposures.

Organophosphate pesticides (OPs)

Used to kill bugs on produce, lawns, and homes. Eating plenty of low-pesticide and organic fruits and vegetables helps reduce exposures.


Oily pollutants in charred meat, cigarette smoke, vehicle exhaust, and emissions from wood stoves. Food and air are widely contaminated. Linked to IQ loss and ADHD.


Industrial chemicals widely used for 50 years, banned in 1976. PCBs persist in the environment, accumulate in fatty foods, and contaminate people worldwide.


A rocket-fuel component and fertilizer contaminant that pollutes drinking water and many types of food. It disrupts thyroid functions critical to brain development.


Common plastic softeners and fragrance ingredients linked to IQ loss and ADHD for children exposed in utero. Many types are banned in children’s toys.