Chemicals, food ingredients and learning disorders


Much of the U.S. regulatory system covering toxins is based on assessing individual chemicals and their effects on human health, rather than what happens in the real world-where we are exposed to multiple chemicals that interact with each other in a variety of ways. In a new article published in the peer-reviewed Behavioral and Brain Functions Journal, led by former FDA researcher Renee Default and co-authored by IATP’s David Wallinga, M.D., among others, researchers look at the links between child learning and behavior disorders, low-level mercury exposure, mineral deficiencies and food additives. 

The article suggests an important new model for assessing how these disparate factors in the food system may be interacting to create a much bigger overall problem than typically is appreciated by looking at these diet factors individually. For example, overall mercury exposure, including many sources aside from food, has been linked to an increased in rates of special education services and autism. The study’s authors looked at data going back to the mid-1980s provided by the State of California and found that cases of diagnosed Autism Spectrum Disorder in California peaked at the same time as peak consumption years for high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) in the United States.

Think Forward is a blog written by staff of the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, covering sustainability as it intersects with food, rural development, international trade, the environment and public health.

“Because many expensive behavior and learning disorders in kids appear to be on the rise,” says Dr. Wallinga in our press release, “it’s imperative that we take steps at many levels to eliminate unnecessary exposures to mercury and other known brain toxins we still expose our children to. In the real-world food and chemical environments we have created, children are exposed to many different toxic chemicals through multiple avenues. The latest science examines how these exposures and health effects interact. In these times of escalating health costs, it’s critical that public policy steps track this new systems thinking in updating our regulatory system for chemicals and food.” 

In a peer-reviewed article published earlier this year in Environmental Health, scientists found detectable mercury in commercial HFCS samples collected by the FDA in 2005. Mercury cell chlor-alkali chemicals have historically been used to manufacture a number of food ingredients including color additives such as FD&C Yellow 5, FD&C Yellow 6 and HFCS. You can read the full article in Behavioral and Brain Functions Journal here.