Forty-one million IQ points. That’s what Dr. David Bellinger determined Americans have collectively forfeited as a result of exposure to lead, mercury, and organophosphate pesticides. In a 2012 paper published by the National Institutes of Health, Bellinger, a professor of neurology at Harvard Medical School, compared intelligence quotients among children whose mothers had been exposed to these neurotoxins while pregnant to those who had not. Bellinger calculates a total loss of 16.9 million IQ points due to exposure to organophosphates, the most common pesticides used in agriculture.

meet the toxins

Common use of some Toxins

  • Chlorpyrifos – Pesticide currently used on food and non-food crops.
  • Tolune – Improves octane ratings in gasoline. Used to make nylon and plastic soft drink bottles, and as a solvent in paints and adhesives.
  • Manganese – Keeps metal from corroding. Found in stainless steel and soft drink cans.
  • Polycholorinated Biphenyls – Keeps houses from catching on fire. Used particularly in insulation, carbon paper and engine coolant.
  • Mecury– Still used in some places in amalgam fillings for teeth. From coal stacks, it ended up in fish.
  • Flouride – Used in toothpaste and put in the water supply of many cities.
  • Arsenic – A versitile compound used in bronzing, pyrotechnics and pesticide production.

Last month, more research brought concerns about chemical exposure and brain health to a heightened pitch. Philippe Grandjean, Bellinger’s Harvard colleague, and Philip Landrigan, dean for global health at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in Manhattan, announced to some controversy in the pages of a prestigious medical journal that a “silent pandemic” of toxins has been damaging the brains of unborn children. The experts named 12 chemicals—substances found in both the environment and everyday items like furniture and clothing—that they believed to be causing not just lower IQs but ADHD and autism spectrum disorder. Pesticides were among the toxins they identified.

So Grandjean (a Danish-born researcher who travels around the world studying delayed effects of chemical exposure on children) when asked did he recommend that pregnant women eat organic produce, said “That’s what I advise people who ask me, yes. It’s the best way of preventing exposure to pesticides.” Grandjean estimates that there are about 45 organophosphate pesticides on the market, and “most have the potential to damage a developing nervous system.”

Landrigan has issued that same warning advising pregnant women to try to eat organic because it reduces their exposure by 80 or 90 percent. He is quoted to say “These are the chemicals I really worry about in terms of kids, the organophosphate pesticides like chlorpyrifos.”

For decades, chlorpyrifos, marketed by Dow Chemical beginning in 1965, was the most widely used insect killer in American homes. Then, in 1995, Dow was fined $732,000 by the EPA for concealing more than 200 reports of poisoning related to chlorpyrifos. It paid the fine and, in 2000, withdrew chlorpyrifos from household products. Today, chlorpyrifos is classified as “very highly toxic” to birds and freshwater fish, and “moderately toxic” to mammals, but it is still used widely in agriculture on food and non-food crops, in greenhouses and plant nurseries, on wood products and golf courses.

About a quarter of your body’s metabolism goes toward operating and maintaining your brain. In order to process even basic information, billions of chemical signals are constantly being carried between neurons. The undertaking is so onerous that even though your brain is not moving (like, say, the powerful muscles in your legs), it uses around 10 times more calories per pound than the rest of you.

Most of that industrious brain and its 86 billion neurons were created in a matter of months. During the first few weeks of gestation, when your mother knew you only as morning sickness and you were a layer of cells huddled in one corner of her uterus, those cells lined up, formed a groove, and then closed to form a tube. One end of that tube eventually became your tiny spinal cord. The rest expanded to form the beginnings of your brain.

For more information of how children worldwide are being exposed to unrecognized toxic chemicals that are silently eroding intelligence, disrupting behaviors, truncating future achievements and damaging our society refer to The Toxins That Threaten Our Brains by James Hamblin