Dr. Devon Payne-Sturges, DrPH, MPH, MEngr Associate Professor Maryland Institute for Applied Environmental Health School of Public Health University of Maryland, College Park

Low Income and Minority Children Risk Impaired Cognitive Function from Environmental Hazards

MedicalResearch.com Interview with:

Dr. Devon Payne-Sturges, DrPH, MPH, MEngr
Associate Professor
Maryland Institute for Applied Environmental Health
School of Public Health
University of Maryland, College Park

Dr. Payne-Sturges

Dr. Devon Payne-Sturges, DrPH, MPH, MEngr
Associate Professor
Maryland Institute for Applied Environmental Health
School of Public Health
University of Maryland, College Park

MedicalResearch.com: What is the background for this study?

Response: My co-authors and I conducted this study to fill a knowledge gap and to inform the work of Project TENDR. No systematic or scoping review had examined both exposure disparities and the joint effects of combined exposures of environmental neurotoxicants and social disadvantage as they relate to disparities in neurodevelopmental outcomes specifically among children living in the U.S.

Our study is the first to summarize the evidence on 7 neurotoxicants that children in the U.S. are routinely exposed to and we examined both disparities in these exposures and disparities in the effects of those exposures on children’s brain development, cognition, and behavior by race, ethnicity, and economic status.

We reviewed over 200 independent studies spanning five decades from 1974 to 2022 on social disparities in exposure to 7 exemplar neurotoxic chemicals and pollutants, including chemical mixtures, and their relationship with disparities with neurodevelopmental outcomes among children in the U.S.

MedicalResearch.com: What are the main findings?

Response:  We found : Children from families with low incomes and families of color are exposed to more neurotoxic chemicals and experience greater harms.

●      Low-income and Black children had higher exposures to lead.

●      Children in communities of color and low-income communities were more highly exposed to air pollution.

●      Black and Hispanic children were exposed to higher levels of organophosphate pesticides.

●      Black and Hispanic mothers had higher levels of phthalates – neurotoxic chemicals in plastics.

The studies that looked further found greater impacts to brain development for those children. For example:

●      Babies living in economically disinvested neighborhoods in their first year of life and exposed to air pollution were more likely to be diagnosed with autism.

●      Low socioeconomic status magnified the adverse impact of lead exposure on children’s cognitive function.

●      Air pollution exposures were associated with more adverse Performance IQ scores among children from low SES families.

●      Air pollution exposures were associated with worse memory functioning scores among Hispanic and Black boys with exposure to high prenatal stress.

MedicalResearch.com: What should readers take away from your report?

Response: Because these neurotoxic pollutants come from many different sources, from industrial sources to consumer products, we really need a collective approach to reduce and prevent exposures. That’s why we provide recommendations for policy makers in our study.

All levels of Government should act swiftly to prevent the production, use, application, and emissions of neurotoxic chemicals and pollutants. Actions to address disparities in neurotoxic exposures that FDA and EPA can take this year include:

➢    FDA immediately ban phthalates from food packaging and processing.

➢    EPA adopt air pollution standards for PM2.5 that protect child brain development.

➢    EPA and FDA eliminate sources of lead exposure to children, including banning leaded aviation gas, reducing to zero allowable levels of lead and other metals in children’s food, and replacing all lead water pipes.

➢    EPA ban all organophosphate pesticides and assess other classes of pesticides for further regulation.

➢    EPA should ensure the swift and health protective cleanup of Superfund sites.

Additionally, our study demonstrates why policies to protect children’s health from environmental exposures should not just address one pollutant in isolation. We need to look at pollutants that impact the same bodily system –and for us that is the neurological system and brain development. And this is important to achieving environmental justice. In fact, environmental justice organizations have been pushing the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and state environmental agencies since the 1980s on the need for environmental policies to consider cumulative impacts which disproportionately affect minority and low income, low wealth communities.

MedicalResearch.com: What recommendations do you have for future research as a results of this study?

Response: While we need stronger environmental policies to address cumulative pollutant exposures that are disproportionately impacting low-income communities and communities of color, we also need to find a way to fix the unjust systems and social policies that create these harmful conditions in the first place.

As researchers, we can contribute by better documenting how and why children living in poverty and children of color are suffering the greatest harms (and not just simply reporting on the disparities in exposures and health outcomes). And, researchers and policymakers need to collaborate with communities to learn from their experience and expertise, and support locally-driven solutions.

MedicalResearch.com: Is there anything else you would like to add? Any disclosures?

Response: Yes. I would add that a better future and improvements are possible. We highlight studies that estimated the benefits to the neurological health of minority children from polices and environmental programs aimed at reducing exposures by cleaning up Superfund sites, reducing industrial emissions, and lowering what has been deemed by the U.S. EPA as acceptable soil metal concentrations (for cleaning up contaminated sites). For example, children who were born to families living near Superfund sites that had been cleaned, were less likely to repeat a grade on par with the benefits of being enrolled in Head Start programs. Also, these children showed improved cognitive functioning. Our decision-makers just need to stop these exposures and we will see better outcomes for our children.

Project TENDR (Targeting Environmental Neuro-Development Risks) is an alliance of more than 50 leading scientists, health professionals, and advocates focused on protecting children from toxic chemicals and pollutants harmful to brain development, and on eliminating disproportionate exposures to children of color and children from low-wealth communities. We do this by building consensus on the scientific evidence regarding neurotoxic chemicals and exposures, publishing articles in peer-reviewed scientific and medical journals, conducting public awareness and media campaigns around our articles and consensus statements, and advocating to inform and empower decision makers to create policies ensuring no child is exposed to chemicals contributing to neurodevelopmental disorders. Project TENDR is a program of The Arc, directed by co-founders Maureen Swanson, The Arc, and Dr. Irva Hertz-Picciotto, UC Davis, along with Dr. Tanya Khemet Taiwo, UC Davis.



Payne-Sturges DC, Taiwo TK, Ellickson K, Mullen H, Tchangalova N, Anderko L, Chen A, Swanson M. Disparities in Toxic Chemical Exposures and Associated Neurodevelopmental Outcomes: A Scoping Review and Systematic Evidence Map of the Epidemiological Literature. Environ Health Perspect. 2023 Sep;131(9):96001. doi: 10.1289/EHP11750. Epub 2023 Sep 27. PMID: 37754677; PMCID: PMC10525348.

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Last Updated on September 29, 2023 by Marie Benz