• The Superfund statute enacted in 1980, in response to Love Canal and Times Beach, to protect communities from the health dangers of hazardous waste disposal sites.

  • The Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA) and the Toxic Substance Control Act (TSCA, pronounced Tosca) enacted in 1972 and 1976, respectively, to require analysis of chemicals to which the public might be exposed through food or other pathways.

It is striking, however, how little policy progress has been made in the years since, even though we were then proceeding on the most rudimentary scientific knowledge about the highly complex relationship between the environment and public health. Our policy proposals were correspondingly crude, with a heavy focus on protecting adult Americans from pathogens and carcinogens. Now we know so much more, and we are doing so much less.

For example, 20 years of research have produced a wealth of new knowledge, an enormous amount of it pointing to the special vulnerability of children to their environment. Yet politicians and policymakers have yet to lead the public by drawing clear connections among education, health, and the environment.

Over the past decade, environmental health research has revealed that infancy and the prenatal period are critical in the development of intellectual capacity. As the brain develops, critical micronutrients and the corrosive effects of microcontaminants that function as neurotoxins have long-lasting impacts, and children can be permanently deprived of their intellectual potential. Examples include the health effects of iodine, zinc, and iron deficiencies; and elevated blood levels of and fetal exposure to mercury, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), and common pesticides.

A growing body of evidence shows that far lower levels of some neurotoxins can have more serious impacts on intelligence and behavior than anyone had previously believed. In addition, new research has raised substantial concerns about these contaminants’ contributions to a wave of behavioral disorders now affecting our schools. These range from attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, to aggression, to impulsive behavior.

These disabilities are clearly the result of complex interactions among genetic, environmental, and social factors, and their apparent increased prevalence is, in part, due to improved detection or record keeping. Yet, these trends are still disturbing and should be part of any discussion about education and health. Because children’s special vulnerability to microcontaminants has become clear only in the past 15 years, virtually all of our exposure standards for neurotoxins are failing to protect American children. Fifteen years ago, we were largely ignorant about the lower thresholds at which children are sensitive to toxic exposures, due to lower body weight and other factors; the multiple pathways through which children are exposed to a chemical, resulting in an increased cumulative exposure far above safe levels; and the synergistic effects of multiple chemical exposures.

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