A recent study released by Dr. Philip Landrigan of Mount Sinai School of Medicine and Dr. Philippe Grandjean of the Harvard School of Public Health and published in the March issue of The Lancet claim the presence of certain chemicals in everyday products is doing great harm to the nervous systems of fetuses, infants, toddlers and children. Landrigan and Grandjean explain that chemical exposure is the reason there has been an increase in the number of diagnoses of certain neurological conditions such as ADHD and Autism-spectrum disorder.

Naturally, the study is generating lots of scary headlines.

The Daily Mail warned readers:

Number of chemicals linked to problems such as autism DOUBLES in just seven years”

Other publications have displayed similarly ominous headlines (I thought this "silent brain epidemic" headline was particularly creative).

Yet, women would be wise to consider the facts behind this study. While Dr. Landrigan and Dr. Grandjean certainly come with some heavy hitting credentials, their latest study is far beneath what one would expect of scientists associated with such prestigious medical establishments and scientific journals.

This isn’t the first time Landrigan and Grandjean – A-list members of the anti-chemical academic elite — have made dramatic claims about the dangers of human exposure to chemicals. In fact, this latest study looks a whole lot like a 2006 study they released, which made the same alarmists statements and which generated a whole host of frenzied headlines.

So, let me summarize Landrigan and Grandjean’s latest study in a non-science-y way. Here goes: Watch out ladies, there are buckets of unregulated chemicals laying around and you, your kids, and your pregnant friends might just take a big gulp! AHHHHHHHH!!!!!

Gil Ross with the American Council on Science and Health offered this damning assessment of the study, saying:

The authors make no mention of dose-response, as though the mere presence of a chemical is enough to tag it as a cause of some disorder. Then they feel that just mentioning other alleged ‘toxins’ make them guilty by association (DDT? Really?).

“They also fall for the ages-old fallacy of post hoc, ergo propter hoc: if some outcome follows some environmental change, the latter must have caused the former, as if opening an umbrella causes it to rain. Other ‘experts’ may have found a similar increase in neurological ailments based on the skyrocketing consumption of organic food, with as much relevance to public health as this nonsense…” 

Landrigan and Grandjean seem to understand that pulling on the heart strings of parents is an excellent way to generate media attention, particularly parents of children who suffer from neurological disorders.

The authors claim that these loose chemicals roaming around are responsible for the uptick in ADHD and other neurological conditions like Autism. Yet, those who know about these disorders know that they, like many other diseases, are complicated and can’t be blamed on one factor. In fact, there is no known cause of ADHD or Autism. While research continues, as of today, no one knows the direct cause or combination of factors that cause these conditions. Yet Landrigan and Grandjean see no ethical problem tossing out their theory that it was the action of the parents – that they carelessly exposed their children to chemical poisoning – that caused their children’s condition.

I find this form of scaring parents particularly monstrous because it’s particularly distressing to parents of children who have been diagnosed with ADHD or Autism-Spectrum Disorder (did I do something to cause harm to my child?) and for women who are pregnant or planning to get pregnant who might think they’ve already endangered their still-growing baby by simply using common, everyday products. Perhaps Landrigan and Grandjean would like pregnant women to stop working, stay home, drink bottled water and eat organic cucumbers for the whole nine months. That seems reasonable.

But do Landrigan and Grandjean have a point when they say the rates of Autism and ADHD have increased?

Sure. Rates have increased but to blame that entirely on the presence of chemicals in products is nuts. Here’s why. Part of the reason the rates of Autism and ADHD have spiked in recent years is because the definition of these conditions has been expanded to capture more kids. As my own pediatrician once told me (I’m paraphrasing), “doctors tend to throw everything into the Autism category when a child demonstrates hard-to-diagnose issues.”

But this “autism seems to be a catchall” issue isn’t the only reason rates have increased. Consider a move by the American Psychiatric Association (APA) late last year when it announced that it was dropping Asperger's syndrome along with some similar disorders from the latest edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), which is the manual used to diagnose patients with mental disorders. So, where were all these disorders being re-categorized? Under Autism-Spectrum Disorder. Bam! Look at those Autism numbers increase!

So, the APA decided to throw a bunch of people who were previously diagnosed with Asperger’s (or a number of other neurological conditions) into the bucket of people who have Autism, but let’s blame the trace amounts of Phthalates in my kid’s rubber ducky.

Lastly, and I think this is worth pointing out, especially for those who are interested in how science is increasingly being politicized, Landrigan and Granjean state on page 333 of volume 13 of The Lancet that “The neurobehavioural toxicity of these compounds seems to affect mainly boys and could therefore relate to endocrine disruption in the developing brain.”

The citation put after that sentence reads:

Swan SH, Liu F, Hines M, et al. Prenatal phthalate exposure and reduced masculine play in boys. Int J Androl 2010; 33: 259–69.

Let’s talk about “Swan SH” for a moment because I love to talk about Shanna H. Swan—well known anti-chemical activist who hides behind a white lab coat.  Her research is so bad that the The National Toxicology Program (a government office charged with coordinating toxicology research and testing) has dismissed her studies. And her so-called “expert” testimony has also been dismissed as inadmissible in several court cases because her research is so laughable. 

I’ve written about Swan here as has Trevor Butterworth here and Jon Entine here.

Look, I’m no Harvard scientists but surly smarty-pants medical professionals like Landrigan and Granjean should know that Shanna H. Swan is not even remotely considered a good source of information on toxicological questions. I mean, really. Don’t these people employ research assistances to do a tiny bit of fact checking? How about The Lancet? Might their super smart fact-checkers could take a look see at the citations in the articles submitted for publication? Swan should jump out at you.


This proves one thing. Landrigan and Grandjean and the Lancet have gone the way of Shanna Swan—swapping scientific evidence for alarmism.

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