Most people assume that such everyday products as toilet bowl cleaners, pesticides, sealants, paints and varnish are safe to store in their homes and use around children. But that may not be the case, argued psychologists Deborah Du Nann Winter, PhD, of Whitman College, and Sue Koger, PhD, of Willamette University, at APA's 2004 Annual Convention in Honolulu.

In fact, a startling number of these products contain chemicals that are for the most part unregulated because chemicals produced in small quantities are exempt from Environmental Protection Agency oversight. They noted that very little is known about the effects many chemicals have on children's developing nervous systems. Moreover, household products are known to contain toxic chemicals such as glycol ethers and phthalates that aren't listed on the product labels or are legally labeled in "other" categories, they said.

"Just because it's available in our home and garden store, doesn't mean it's safe," explained Koger, co-author with Winter of the book "The Psychology of Environmental Problems" (Lawrence Erlbaum, 2004).

Indeed, a National Academy of Sciences report in 2000 estimated that 25 percent of neurological deficits in children are most likely due to the interaction between chemicals and genetic factors, and 3 percent due to chemicals alone, Winter said. In addition, the 2000 "Polluting our Future" report by the Physicians for Social Responsibility, the National Environmental Trust and the Learning Disabilities Association of America estimated that one in every 200 U.S. children suffers from developmental or neurological deficits caused by exposure to known toxic substances.

She went on to note that nearly 78 percent of the 3,000 most highly produced chemicals in the United States have no screening information available on possible developmental or neurological effects on children.

She and Koger are particularly concerned about the possible link between the increasing use of household chemicals and the increased reports of children with such developmental disorders as autism, Asperger's and attention-deficit hyperactivity.

"As psychologists, we have an ethical responsibility to look into this," said Winter.

The two urged psychologists to effect public policy changes in the regulation of chemicals, use their expertise in behavior change to inform prevention efforts and join interdisciplinary research efforts to reduce the threat of toxins to children.

Children at risk

The developing nervous system is extremely vulnerable to "toxic disruption," Koger said. For example, extensive research by University of Pittsburg psychiatrist Herbert Needleman, MD, has shown that children who are exposed to lead are at a greater risk for developing attentional disorders, a fact that "really gives reason to be concerned about other substances," noted Koger. What's more, young children are prone to ingesting such toxins because they spend more time on floors, navigate their environment by putting things in their mouths, and tend to drink a lot of fruit, juice and water containing potential contaminants, such as pesticides.

Yet little is known about the chemicals' effects on children, in part because of the vast challenges involved with this type of research, Koger said. For example, early or prenatal exposure to a toxic substance may not show up in children until they start school or later, making it hard to pinpoint the root of a disorder. What's more, isolating when an exposure to toxic chemicals occurred can be tricky.

A case in point: when researchers discovered that thalidomide--given to pregnant women to curb nausea in the 1960s--caused substantial physical birth defects, they also found another side effect: autism. However, autism was only a side effect if the fetus was exposed to thalidomide between days 20 and 24 of the gestational period, explained Koger, while exposure at any other time caused limb defects.

Psychologists, she added, "have been largely silent on this issue," and should be initiating more research on what might be causing sharp increases in developmental disorders and the possible link to toxic chemicals.

And, because existing efforts to reduce exposure to toxicants--such as public education on lead poisoning--are often more reactionary than preventive, psychologists can use their behavioral expertise to focus people's attention on prevention.

Poised for change

Other countries are becoming more proactive in their efforts to reduce potentially harmful toxins, said Winter, a longtime advocate for the environment and a former member of APA's Council of Representatives. She urged psychologists to rouse support for similar solutions among their representatives in Congress. Some examples include:

  • REACH, or Registration, Evaluation and Authorization of Chemicals, proposed legislation before the European Parliament that would make the use and sale of chemicals illegal until their safety is empirically demonstrated. By contrast, chemicals are legal in the United States unless proven unsafe under the U.S. Toxic Substance Control Act, said Winter.

  • Biomonitoring, the regular testing of human blood, urine and breast milk for environmental toxins, which is conducted extensively in both Sweden and Germany and throughout many other European countries. The United States, Winter noted, has a limited biomonitoring process through the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the California legislature is considering a biomonitoring bill that promoters hope will pass in 2005.

  • The Rotterdam Convention on the Prior Informed Consent Procedure, a treaty that would better regulate the international trade of hazardous chemicals and pesticides. The treaty establishes a list of chemicals that have been banned or restricted, and governments that sign on must provide information about chemicals being shipped to other countries. The United States signed this treaty in 1998, but has not ratified it, Winter noted.

She also urged psychologists to support groups working to regulate and limit toxic chemicals, such as the National Environmental Trust, the National Resources Defense Council, Greenpeace and the Sierra Club, as well as psychology groups working on these issues, such as Psychologists for Social Responsibility and APA's Div. 34 (Population and Environmental).

"Cleaning up our sea of toxins will be a long and complicated project," said Winter, "but one that can be greatly enhanced by concerned psychologists."