Senators heard testimony this week about how exposure to toxic chemicals may be linked to learning and developmental problems like autism, and how biomonitoring could strengthen the federal government’s ability to protect the public from toxic chemicals. At a Senate subcommittee hearing on Superfund, Toxics, and Environmental Health, public health advocates presented Mind, Disrupted, a biomonitoring project documenting dozens of neurotoxic chemicals in the bodies of adults who experienced developmental delays themselves or in their families. Each of the 12 volunteer participants in the study, which used biomonitoring to measure chemical in blood and urine, tested positive for at least 26 of the 89 measured chemicals. Overall, 61 chemicals known or suspected to cause neurological damage were present in the bodies of study participants. While the Mind, Disrupted report (PDF) doesn’t claim that specific chemicals found can be blamed for the participants’ health problems, it raises the question of the risks such chemicals-found in everyday products such as baby bottles, computers and conventionally grown produce-may pose to public health.

Dramatically rising rates of learning disabilities and developmental disorders such as autism, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and dyslexia have raised concerns about possible environmental causes of the problems among parent groups and health professionals, including members of the Learning and Development Disabilities Initiative (a national project with 400 organizational members) which sponsored the Mind, Disrupted project. “The overwhelming evidence shows that certain environmental exposures can contribute to lifelong learning and developmental disorders,” explains physician Ted Schettler, Science Director for the Science and Environmental Health Network and Board Member of Pesticide Action Network (PAN). “We should eliminate children’s exposures to substances that we know can have these impacts by implementing stronger health-based policies requiring safer alternatives.”

TSCA reform: This week’s Senate hearing was part of ongoing discussions in Congress about updating the national law governing industrial chemicals, the 1976 Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA). Many scientists and environmental health advocates cite the fact that U.S. EPA has evaluated just 200 of the estimated 80,000 industrial chemicals in commerce-and banned only five-as evidence of TSCA’s failure to protect the health of consumers. A coalition of more than 120 organizations called Safer Chemicals Healthy Families is pressing for a fundamental overhaul of the 30 -year-old law to better protect the public from toxic chemicals. Such advocates argue that methods like biomonitoring to test for chemical exposure could play an important role in strengthening TSCA. “A strong biomonitoring program could provide the evidence regulators need to take action reducing exposures of concern,” says Margaret Reeves, Senior Scientist at Pesticide Action Network. “A program designed to include key geographic and demographic information would enable regulators to target policies to best protect those most exposed such as workers, infants and children, the elderly or immune-suppressed individuals.”

In designing a national biomonitoring program EPA could look to California’s precedent-setting Environmental Contaminants Biomonitoring Program passed into law in 2006. Key elements of the California program include community participation in selecting target chemicals, and the right of those tested to receive their individual test results. Subcommittee Chair Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) is expected to introduce a TSCA reform bill soon that may include biomonitoring as a means to decide which chemicals should be prioritized for evaluation.