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CHE Cafe call: Chemical Brain Drain: A Conversation with Philippe Grandjean

On 3 December HEAL’s Senior Advisor took part in an insightful conversation with Dr. Grandjean, discussing the impact of chemical exposures on the brain, known as the ‘Chemical Brain Drain’.

HEAL has a partnership with the US-based Collaborative on Health and the Environment (CHE), which holds ‘Café Calls’ on environmental health topics.

This month’s call was a conversation between Michael Lerner from CHE, and Dr Philippe Grandjean about his new book Only One Chance: How Environmental Pollution Impairs Brain Development—and How to Protect the Brains of the Next Generation

Lisette van Vliet from the HEAL Secretariat was a discussant. The book coalesces and coheres Dr Grandjean’s many years of work and insights about neurodevelopment toxicity – or the “chemical brain drain” – the pandemic of deficits in brain function related to exposures to environmental chemicals, particularly during early stages of development.




Some highlights are:

Dr Grandjean explained the organisational complexity of the development of the brain, and how crucial it is to have this development follow the stages in the right order and at the right times, in order to ensure the optimal functioning of the brain. When toxic assaults happen during the development of the brain, the consequences range from severe malformations (the acute cases of disability from mercury poisoning, made famous in the Japanese Minimata disaster), all the way to subtle functional deficits barely detectable through standard research methods.

An important point is that many of the consequences of this toxic brain drain are silent in that they don’t necessarily manifest in diagnosable and diagnosed diseases such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Diagnosed cases of diseases or brain dysfunction are the tip of the iceberg. Much of the drain are at a subtle functional level that takes sophisticated research / testing to uncover, but that is nonetheless draining our society of brainpower. As a result, we are probably vastly underestimating the amount of brain drain present in our societies. The brain is our most precious and valuable organ and we are degrading it and its potential when we need it the most - at a time of increasing and severe challenges for humankind.

The conversation also covered what is known about how many chemicals are neurotoxic, and the barriers in research and regulatory practice to identify and control those chemicals which drain the brain. Dr Grandjean also briefly gave his views on the recently completed global mercury treaty and of the interesting opportunities of hair testing for supporting pre-pregnancy and obstetric services.

Dr Grandjean finished with a suggestion that our society learns from the model given by the International Agency for Research on Cancer, that we need a clearing house for existing data, and a body to coordinate research and facilitate more forceful evaluations of the evidence to support policymaking.

The call also included questions and comments from listeners and responses. An audio (MP3) file of the conversation is available for downloading and listening here

On his website, Chemical Brain Drain, Dr. Grandjean provides a forum for further discussion on chemicals impacting our brains’ health and implications for society.

Dr. Grandjean is Professor and Chair of Environmental Medicine at the University of Southern Denmark and Adjunct Professor of Environmental Health in the Department of Environmental Health at Harvard School of Public Health.

Last updated on 17 December 2013

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