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On-Demand Video: Chemical Exposures and the Brain: The Flint Water Crisis and More
Event held February 19, 2016
For immediate release

In the latest in a series of live webcasts by The Forum at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, a panel of experts examined the water crisis gripping Flint, Michigan, as well as discussed more broadly chemical exposure risks, particularly to children’s cognitive and neurological health. This Forum was conducted February 19, 2016. Below are highlights of the conversation for media use. 

Panelists alleged variously that “willful negligence” and “a failure of political will” have led not only to the crisis over lead-contaminated water in Flint but to a “lack of strategy” to deal with exposure to lead and thousands of other chemicals nationwide. There is no safe blood lead level in children, according to the CDC; exposure can damage nerves in developing fetuses and children, with subsequent loss of intellectual and physical capacity. Much less is known about potential damage from the “soup” of other chemicals that surrounds us. 
Pesticide exposure may relate to Parkinson’s disease, for example, but which one -- and is it only one kind? Scientists can’t yet study the way a thousand chemical compounds relate to each other and to thousands of others, and regulators can act only on one at a time. Individuals, especially in under-served populations, face difficulties in choosing safe products because information about potential risks may not be available, or they may lack time to learn or access to alternatives.
The panelists agreed that next steps should come from the U.S. Congress and government regulators: raising awareness that untested and possibly risky chemical compounds pervade everyone’s environment, mapping known areas of lead and other contamination, and investing in a comprehensive strategy to deal with the problem. As every IQ point lost to lead contamination in a child is worth an estimated $15,000 in lifetime income loss, the huge investment needed would be very cost-effective

Philippe Grandjean, Adjunct Professor of Environmental Health, Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health
Marc Weisskopf, Associate Professor of Environmental and Occupational Epidemiology, Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health
Jeffrey Griffiths, Professor of Public Health and Community Medicine, Tufts University School of Medicine; and Former Chair, US EPA Drinking Water Committee, Science Advisory Board
Kimberly Gray, Program Director, Children’s Environmental Health, National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences

Peter Thomson, Environment Editor, PRI’s The World

This Forum was presented in collaboration with PRI’s The World & WGBH, and was part of the Andelot Series on Current Science Controversies.

  • The lead contamination that happened in Flint could have happened in many communities in the U.S because of the extent of lead pipe use in the country. Corrosive water can leach lead into drinking water. 
  • A “soup” of many other potentially damaging chemicals surrounds us because new chemicals are assumed harmless until proven otherwise. Limits from Congress and low funding mean that few of them, or older ones, have even been tested. “The evidence is very robust,” one panelist said, for example, that pesticides are related to Parkinson’s disease, but to which pesticide, or to how many, are not known.
  • Legislation on chemical regulation dates to 1976 and is outdated, so “the industry is virtually free to market whatever they want,” one panelist said. “It’s a matter of [government] negligence.” Others blamed lack of public pressure and political will.
  • Scientists easily compare one thing to another but not a thousand things to each other, or to thousands of others, so the full risks of exposure to the “soup” are not known. Meanwhile, underfunded and overworked regulators act on one chemical at a time.
  • Letting individuals choose among products can’t work “because we just don’t know what to tell them,” as one panelist put it. Under-served populations especially may lack the necessary information or access to alternatives.
  • Many areas treat drinking water solely by filtration through sand or substances that do not remove chemical compounds. Activated charcoal and ultraviolet may work much better to filter and disinfect.
  • Public debate is needed over the level of certainty necessary for action against a possible contaminant. Mapping known contaminated areas would be a first step, along with awareness-raising on the pervasiveness of possibly risky chemicals, and development of government policies and action plans to deal with them.

To watch the full one-hour Forum, visit

Contact: Christina Roache,  tel. 617-432-7094
Click the links below to watch clips from the event.
Chemical Regulation: Highlight from Chemicals and the Brain
Outdated legislation
Grandjean: “I think it’s a matter of negligence.” Outdated legislation from 1976 has allowed industry to be "virtually free to market whatever they want.”  Modernized legislation is being discussed, but efforts do not look “very ambitious and that we are going to continue to have problems in the future.”
Scientific Problems: Highlight from Chemicals and the Brain
Scientists can't cope with thousands of interacting chemicals 
Griffiths: “We assume the introduction of a new chemical…is basically going to be all right until it’s proven otherwise. And so many of us think that’s backwards.” Old fixtures in schools are a potential source for exposure. “In its infinite wisdom, Congress allowed fixtures with up to 8% lead to be labeled as ‘lead free.’ So your children could be going to school and actually get their biggest lead exposure from the bubbler [water fountain] where they get their drinking water.” But trying to remove harmful compounds from the "chemical soup" can be difficult because scientists can’t cope with thousands of interacting chemicals. “We don’t have the tools to do that, nor is it likely we will in our lifetimes.”
Other Potentially Risky Chemicals: Highlight from Chemicals and the Brain
Other chemical concerns
Weisskopf: "There's all sorts of other stuff out there that is potentially damaging to humans, children and adults. We're concerned about plasticizers, phthalates, BPA in bottles, perfluoroalkyl compounds that are more recently in the news, pesticides. All of these things are certainly have the potential to be toxic."
Government Action: Highlight from Chemicals and the Brain

Government action
Gray: "The children are vulnerable. They're developing. Pound per pound, they eat more, drink more, breathe more. Their organ systems are developing. So we look at that as the most vulnerable of our population. Plus, we are their voice."

Negligence and Cover-up: Highlight from Chemicals and the Brain
Astounding negligence
Griffiths: “This is just negligence at an astounding degree because we have known for decades … that we had a real problem with lead… This is a failure of political will.” Lots of cities have had this problem. Dramatically, for example, “People were exposed to very high levels of lead in the households in specific neighborhoods in Washington, DC. And this was essentially covered up by the people who were taking care of the water supply there.”
The Problem of Chemical Contamination: Highlight from Chemicals and the Brain
One chance to develop a brain
Grandjean: Brain development is complex and vulnerable to chemical insults. “If you're exposed to toxic elements like lead during that period, then things can go wrong. You only get one chance to develop a brain… When something like this happens in Flint, it means that there [are] going to be permanent effects.” 
The Chemical Iceberg: Highlight from Chemicals and the Brain
Chemical iceberg
Grandjean: Twelve compounds are known to be toxic to developing brains; they are among more than 200 that can damage neurological functions.  “Any parent or grandparent would agree with me that those 214 compounds have no place in a baby's circulation or baby's brain. Yet we're not doing anything to control them.”
Individual vs Government Action: Highlight from Chemicals and the Brain

A societal issue
Weisskopf: Not everyone has the same resources to lessen their risks for toxic exposures. "It really becomes a societal issue where we have to say, are we taking care of everybody in the society? ... It's unfair to just say, 'let's let the individual decide.' We have to, as a society, say we want to protect people. And that means everybody. And so it has to come from policy. It has to come from some regulation."

Expert recommendations
Each expert offered a single policy recommendation at the end of the show.
Through in-person events paired with state-of-the-art interactive webcasting, The Forum at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health convenes the best-informed and most influential scientists, policymakers, and practitioners to address worldwide health problems that require immediate decisions and practical solutions.


Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health brings together dedicated experts from many disciplines to educate new generations of global health leaders and produce powerful ideas that improve the lives and health of people everywhere. As a community of leading scientists, educators, and students, we work together to take innovative ideas from the laboratory to people's lives-not only making scientific breakthroughs, but also working to change individual behaviors, public policies, and health care practices. Each year, more than 400 faculty members at the Harvard Chan School teach 1,000-plus full-time students from around the world and train thousands more through online and executive education courses. Founded in 1913 as the Harvard-MIT School of Health Officers, the School is recognized as America's oldest professional training program in public health.
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