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Report: Toxic chemicals stealing kids’ future potential

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Eric Galatas

(Colorado News Connection) Children of color and from low-income families across the nation are not only exposed to more dangerous toxic chemicals - including lead, tailpipe and other air pollution, plastics and pesticides - they also experience disproportionate harm to brain development compared to their white and higher income peers, according to a new report

Co-author Devon Payne-Sturges - an associate professor at the University of Maryland - said five decades of data shows that poverty exacerbates these impacts.

"Studies have found that the combined experience, say, of exposure to lead in the environment - and being from an impoverished community, or a low-income family," said Payne-Sturges, "actually worsened the negative cognitive impacts."

Americans of all ages are exposed to some level of toxins in the air, water and soil, but children are especially vulnerable to exposures that can make it harder for them to thrive as adults. 

Kids whose brains are damaged by these chemicals find it harder to concentrate in class, to recall lessons learned, and are more likely to fail and repeat grades.

Payne-Sturges said interventions, such as replacing lead pipes that bring drinking water into homes, are important. 

But she said counting on people to avoid exposure at the individual level won't work, because toxins are found in so many places and products people use every day. 

Policies are needed at the national level to address the cumulative public health impacts.

"If you really want to ensure that kids grow up in a healthy environment that is also good for their brain development," said Payne-Sturges, "we need a strategy that addresses these contaminants all together."

Payne-Sturges said it's also important to look at how pollutants end up where children live. She said communities of color are not simply making bad decisions about where to raise families. 

Unhealthy environments are a result of decisions made by industry leaders, and government policies.

"And have a long history related to discriminatory practices, residential segregation that forced people only to live in certain places," said Payne-Sturges, "that often happened to be places where polluting industries would site."