AAIDD launched an environmental health initiative designed to promote good health and reduce disability by forging ground breaking partnerships among the developmental disabilities networks and the environmental health communities. The goals of this unique collaboration are to:

  • Raise awareness about the complex links between exposure to neurotoxic chemicals and developmental disabilities, and
  • Raise awareness that those living with mental retardation and related developmental disabilities may be at greater risk of secondary health effects from toxic exposures than individuals without disabilities.

The initiative began in July 2003 when AAIDD convened a Summit where leaders from academia, environmental health disciplines, disability services, special education, public policy and the self-advocacy network framed a national action blueprint. This framework is designed to achieve effective collaboration among network partners and has extensive recommendations for action pertaining to education, outreach, training, legislation, policy, and research.

AAIDD has established an expert Advisory Board and three workgroups to put these policy, research, and educational recommendations into action. The working groups are comprised of AAIDD members, developmental and learning disabilities professionals, environmental health experts, individuals with disabilities and state and local government association members. This includes scientists, researchers, toxicologists, nurses, self-advocates and many others to collaborate their expertise and passion to move this environmental health promotion and disability agenda forward!

AAIDD now has a position statement that outlines our Environmental Health Initiative, and we encourage organizations, professionals, community members, legislators, and any interested parties in signing-on. To read about the position statement, click here. Contact Laura Abulafia at Laura@aaidd.org if you wish to sign-on.

Causes Unknown

Although there is little doubt that many aspects of learning and development are genetically influenced, for the vast majority of these disorders there is no evidence that genetic factors are the predominant cause. In fact, the few syndromes that appear to be exclusively genetic are rare.

Developmental disability can be the result of any one of many factors, or a combination of multiple factors. In fact, as much as 50 percent of all cases of mental retardation have more than one underlying cause. Furthermore, for a third of all the cases of mental retardation, the cause is still unknown.

We believe that we can no longer ignore the mounting evidence that chemical exposures are contributing substantially to the epidemic of developmental disabilities.

Developmental Disabilities

Neurodevelopmental disabilities are widespread, and chemical exposures are important and preventable contributors to these conditions.

The term “Developmental Disabilities” can be used to describe any number of disabilities that interrupt natural brain development, begin in childhood, and are life-long. Disabilities may affect a person’s ability to speak, learn, make decisions, understand language, or take care of oneself.

Economic Costs

The consequences of developmental disabilities can be tragic and expensive. The familial, societal and economic costs are immense, and the disabilities are usually life-long. For instance, special education services to all students with disabilities costs $77.3 billion per year.

The National Academy of Sciences (NAS) estimates that 25 percent of developmental and neurological deficits in children are due to the interplay between chemicals and genetic factors and that 3% are caused by exposure to chemicals alone. The NAS estimates that costs due to environmental factors could be anywhere from $4.6┬ĘC$18.4 billion per year.

Chemical Exposures

Toxins in the environment are an important concern for persons with developmental disabilities. Sometimes developmental disabilities are specifically caused by exposure to toxins prior to birth or during childhood. Others born with disabilities may suffer additional secondary health effects that further impact optimal functioning.

Vast quantities of neurotoxic chemicals are released into the environment each year. Of the top 20 chemicals reported by the Toxics Release Inventory in 1997, nearly three-quarters are known or suspected neurotoxicants. They include methanol, ammonia, manganese, toluene, phosphoric acid, xylene, n-hexane, chlorine, methyl ethyl ketone, carbon disulfide lead and glycol ethers.

The current, limited understanding of chemical neurotoxicity potential has one particularly unsettling implication: What we already know about neurodevelopmental toxic threats to the fetus, child and those living with disabilities is likely to be only the tip of the iceberg.

Linking Toxic Exposures with Developmental Disabilities

The connection between toxic environmental exposures and neurodevelopment is an emerging area of concern. An estimated 12 million children (17 percent) have one or more learning, developmental, or behavioral disability and these numbers appear to be increasing. Mental retardation alone affects 1.4 million children. Exposures to environmental toxins such as lead, mercury, PCBs, alcohol, toluene and tobacco have all been proven to cause permanent developmental disabilities.

Other toxic exposures such as pesticides, solvents, flame retardants, plastics, and heavy metals such as cadmium and excessive manganese, similarly disrupt brain development. The cause of the increase in developmental disabilities is unknown, yet the latest science and research efforts are beginning to implicate the more than 80,000 chemicals that have been introduced into the environment over the past 40 years. This initiative is raising awareness of the links between disabilities and toxic exposures, calling for needed research to clarify these associations, and progressive policies to address the issue.