creased levels of population, are simply unable to invest in the public health and nutritional measures that would halt this cycle.

These causes of intellectual decline are a potent threat to any attempt to move the world toward sustainable development. Poverty is both a cause and an effect of high birth rates. Lowered intellectual capacity leads to economic difficulties, an inability to manage the environment in a sustainable manner, increasing poverty, and high birth rates. High birth rates mean that populations grow beyond the capacity of the environment to feed them, and poor nutrition results. Poor nutrition contributes to intellectual decline, which, through illiteracy, may precipitate high birth rates and poverty.

This is a global problem, and we must respond globally, through a strong Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants. This treaty is currently being negotiated under the auspices of the United Nations. This convention will enable measures to be taken to reduce or eliminate exposure to the most potent persistent organic pollutants now found in the environment and will also establish a framework for considering additional compounds as the science advances. The convention is about public health. It is also about intellectual development, and ultimately economic competitiveness, because virtually all of the compounds under consideration are known or suspected to interfere with developmental processes in the fetus.

We allowed too many compounds such as DDT and PCBs to move into global use before we understood their tragic consequences. The proper place to carry out experiments is not in our children’s bodies or in the ecosystems of the world. It is in government, industry, and academic laboratories, resolving health questions before a chemical goes into widespread use and its recall becomes problematic.

Here at home, we are operating with a regulatory framework that is 20 years out of date, built on the rudimentary science of the 1970s. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has required complete tests for developmental neurotoxicity for only 12 pesticides and has only recently begun to require further testing. Nearly 75 percent of the top high-volume industrial chemicals have undergone little or no neurotoxicity testing, despite the fact that 28 percent of the current inventory of 80,000 chemicals in commerce has neurotoxic potential. Under the 1970s SCA statute, EPA cannot require testing unless it has evidence of danger and cannot prove it has evidence of danger without testing.

Changing this increasingly dangerous situation will require a major shift in our approach to chemical regulation and in our debate over education in America. We can no longer act to protect society from the impacts of chemicals only after a scientific consensus is reached and hundreds of thousands or millions of Americans and their children have been exposed without their knowledge or consent. The disturbingly long time it has taken the federal government to act on dioxin, the most potent carcinogen identified, makes this clear. We must substitute a far more protective standard and follow the Europeans in developing a broad precautionary approach to chemical regulation. Public health, economics, and the future of our children demand it.



The National Academies | 500 Fifth St. N.W. | Washington, D.C. 20001
Copyright © National Academy of Sciences. All rights reserved.
Terms of Use and Privacy Statement