Black, Hispanic and poor children are more exposed to pollution that ends up harming their brains: Study

Black, Hispanic and low-income children are more exposed to toxics like air pollution and lead — and this disparate exposure is linked to autism, lower IQ scores and worse memory, according to a new scientific review of more than 200 studies.

The review, published today in Environmental Health Perspectives, found that scientists often study how race or income are linked to pollution exposure — and repeatedly find that people of color and lower income families are more exposed — but often fail to examine how race or income level interacts with these exposures. When they do look into these interactions, they find poor kids and children of color are more likely to experience problems with learning, attention and behavior.

“As a result of discriminatory practices and policies, families with low incomes and families of color are currently and historically disproportionately exposed to chemicals without their knowledge or consent where they live, work, play, pray and learn,” co-lead author Devon C. Payne-Sturges, Project TENDR member and associate professor at the University of Maryland School of Public Health, said in a statement. “Their neighborhoods are more likely to be located near factories, chemical plants, superfund sites, highways and more vehicle traffic, or by agricultural fields where pesticides are applied.”

The researchers — all members of Project TENDR, an alliance of more than 50 leading scientists, health professionals and advocates focused on protecting children from toxics — looked at 218 studies from 1974 to 2022 that examined children’s exposure to brain-harming toxics including lead, particulate matter, organophosphate pesticides, PBDE flame retardants, PCBs and phthalates.

They found that, compared to the general population:

  • Black children had higher lead exposures
  • Poor and non-white neighborhoods had higher ambient air pollution
  • Black and Hispanic children had higher exposures to organophosphate pesticides;
  • Black and Hispanic mothers had higher levels of phthalates in their bodies.

Some of the key downstream impacts:

  • Babies living with higher air pollution and in poorer neighborhoods were more likely to have an autism diagnosis and lower IQ scores
  • Children that had lead exposure and were from low-income homes had worsened cognitive function
  • Black and Hispanic boys that were exposed to prenatal stress and then air pollution had worse memory scores

“We need more stringent environmental standards to address pollution that is disproportionately impacting low-income communities and communities of color,” co- lead author Tanya Khemet Taiwo, Project TENDR member and Bastyr University Midwifery Department assistant professor, said in a statement. “But, it’s just as important that we find a way to improve the unjust systems and social policies that create harmful conditions in the first place.”

The authors call for more studies that follow the downstream impacts of kids’ toxic exposure, more research specifically looking at Indigenous and Asian American children and more action from the federal government in protecting kids’ brains.

The Food and Drug Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency “can act now — not later — to protect families from neurotoxic chemicals by banning phthalates from food contact materials; eliminating lead from residential environments, aviation gas, and children’s foods; ending the use of organophosphate pesticides and setting air pollution standards to protect child brain development,” said Dr. Payne-Sturges, who was a policy specialist at the EPA for 12 years.

See the full study here.