AAIDD launched an environmental health initiative designed to promote good health and reduce disability by forging ground breaking partnerships among the developmental disabilities networks and the environmental health communities. The goals of this unique collaboration are to:
  • Raise awareness about the complex links between exposure to neurotoxic chemicals and developmental disabilities, and
  • Raise awareness that those living with mental retardation and related developmental disabilities may be at greater risk of secondary health effects from toxic exposures than individuals without disabilities.

The initiative began in July 2003 when AAIDD convened a Summit where leaders from academia, environmental health disciplines, disability services, special education, public policy and the self-advocacy network framed a national action blueprint. This framework is designed to achieve effective collaboration among network partners and has extensive recommendations for action pertaining to education, outreach, training, legislation, policy, and research.

AAIDD has established an expert Advisory Board and three workgroups to put these policy, research, and educational recommendations into action. The working groups are comprised of AAIDD members, developmental and learning disabilities professionals, environmental health experts, individuals with disabilities and state and local government association members. This includes scientists, researchers, toxicologists, nurses, self-advocates and many others to collaborate their expertise and passion to move this environmental health promotion and disability agenda forward!

AAIDD now has a position statement that outlines our Environmental Health Initiative, and we encourage organizations, professionals, community members, legislators, and any interested parties in signing-on. To read about the position statement, click here. Contact Laura Abulafia at Laura@aaidd.org if you wish to sign-on.

Causes Unknown

Although there is little doubt that many aspects of learning and development are genetically influenced, for the vast majority of these disorders there is no evidence that genetic factors are the predominant cause. In fact, the few syndromes that appear to be exclusively genetic are rare.

Developmental disability can be the result of any one of many factors, or a combination of multiple factors. In fact, as much as 50 percent of all cases of mental retardation have more than one underlying cause. Furthermore, for a third of all the cases of mental retardation, the cause is still unknown.

We believe that we can no longer ignore the mounting evidence that chemical exposures are contributing substantially to the epidemic of developmental disabilities.

Developmental Disabilities

Neurodevelopmental disabilities are widespread, and chemical exposures are important and preventable contributors to these conditions.

The term "Developmental Disabilities" can be used to describe any number of disabilities that interrupt natural brain development, begin in childhood, and are life-long. Disabilities may affect a person's ability to speak, learn, make decisions, understand language, or take care of oneself.

Economic Costs

The consequences of developmental disabilities can be tragic and expensive. The familial, societal and economic costs are immense, and the disabilities are usually life-long. For instance, special education services to all students with disabilities costs $77.3 billion per year.

The National Academy of Sciences (NAS) estimates that 25 percent of developmental and neurological deficits in children are due to the interplay between chemicals and genetic factors and that 3% are caused by exposure to chemicals alone. The NAS estimates that costs due to environmental factors could be anywhere from $4.6¨C$18.4 billion per year.

Chemical Exposures

Toxins in the environment are an important concern for persons with developmental disabilities. Sometimes developmental disabilities are specifically caused by exposure to toxins prior to birth or during childhood. Others born with disabilities may suffer additional secondary health effects that further impact optimal functioning.

Vast quantities of neurotoxic chemicals are released into the environment each year. Of the top 20 chemicals reported by the Toxics Release Inventory in 1997, nearly three-quarters are known or suspected neurotoxicants. They include methanol, ammonia, manganese, toluene, phosphoric acid, xylene, n-hexane, chlorine, methyl ethyl ketone, carbon disulfide lead and glycol ethers.

The current, limited understanding of chemical neurotoxicity potential has one particularly unsettling implication: What we already know about neurodevelopmental toxic threats to the fetus, child and those living with disabilities is likely to be only the tip of the iceberg.

Linking Toxic Exposures with Developmental Disabilities

The connection between toxic environmental exposures and neurodevelopment is an emerging area of concern. An estimated 12 million children (17 percent) have one or more learning, developmental, or behavioral disability and these numbers appear to be increasing. Mental retardation alone affects 1.4 million children. Exposures to environmental toxins such as lead, mercury, PCBs, alcohol, toluene and tobacco have all been proven to cause permanent developmental disabilities.

Other toxic exposures such as pesticides, solvents, flame retardants, plastics, and heavy metals such as cadmium and excessive manganese, similarly disrupt brain development. The cause of the increase in developmental disabilities is unknown, yet the latest science and research efforts are beginning to implicate the more than 80,000 chemicals that have been introduced into the environment over the past 40 years. This initiative is raising awareness of the links between disabilities and toxic exposures, calling for needed research to clarify these associations, and progressive policies to address the issue.

Pediatric Environmental Health Specialty Units – a Resource for the Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities Community
Jerome A. Paulson, MD, FAAP
Tuesday, December 9 2008 from 2:00-3:00 pm ET

Environmental Impacts on Neurodevelopment, A Case Study from Ecuador
Alexis Jeannine Handal, PhD MPH
Department of Family and Community Medicine University of New Mexico
Tuesday, February 10 2009 from 2:00-3:00 pm ET

Indoor Air Quality and Health, Part II
Howard Brightman, ScD, PE, CIH
In place of Jack Spengler, Ph.D., Akira Yamaguchi Professor of Environmental Health and Human Habitation in the Harvard School of Public Health's Department of Environmental Health

Tuesday, March 9 2009 from 2:00-3:00 pm ET

Past Teleconferences

Environmental Contaminants and ADHD
Daniel A. Axelrad
Tuesday, October 7 from 2:00-3:00 pm ET

Children's Health and Environmental Pesticide Exposures
Elizabeth A. Guillette
Research Scientist in Anthropology at the University of Florida
Tuesday, September 9 from 2:00-3:00 pm ET

Tracey Woodruff
Scientist and Policy Analyst, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
Tuesday August 5 from 2:00-3:00 pm ET

LDDI Scientific Consensus Statement
Steven Gilbert, PhD, DABT
Tuesday, July 8 from 2:00-3:00 pm ET

Asthma in School Environments for Students and Staff
Tolle Graham, Healthy Schools Coordinator
Elise Pechter, MPH, CIH, Industrial Hygienist Occupational Health Surveillance Program
Tuesday, June 17 from 2:00-3:00 pm ET

Lead Exposure and Developmental Disabilities
Jay S. Schneider, Ph.D.
Professor, Dept. of Pathology, Anatomy and Cell Biology
Director: Parkinson's Disease Research Unit Thomas Jefferson University
Tuesday, April 8, 2008 from 2:00-3:00 pm ET

Environmental Injustice: Focus on Pediatric Neurodevelopmental Disorders
Lawrence D. Rosen, MD
Chair, Integrative Pediatrics Council

Tuesday, March 11, 2008 from 2:00-3:00 pm ET

Indoor Air Quality and Health, Part I
Jack Spengler, Ph.D.
Akira Yamaguchi Professor of Environmental Health and Human Habitation in the Harvard School of Public Health's Department of Environmental Health
Tuesday, February 12, 2008 from 2:00-3:00 pm ET

Cleaning for Health in New England Schools
Carol Westinghouse, specialist in Cleaning for Health programs and in the environmentally preferable purchasing of institutional cleaning products
Tuesday, January 8, 2008 from 2:00-3:00 pm ET

Environmental Health in School Settings
Stacey Gonzalez, Campaign Coordinator at the Center for Health, Environment and Justice (CHEJ)
Tuesday, November 6, 2007 from 2:00-3:00 pm EST

Protecting Children's Health at School
Claire Barnett, MBA, Executive Director of the Healthy Schools Network
Kim Voss, Parent
Tuesday, October 9, 2007 from 2:00-3:00 pm EST

National Birth Defect Registry: Collecting Data That Potentially Links Environmental Exposures to Clusters of Birth Defects
Betty Mekdeci, Founder of Birth Defects Research for Children
Tuesday, September 11, 2007 from 2:00-3:00 pm EST

Detecting the Impact of Ethanol on the Fetus and Understanding its Underlying Mechanism
Cynthia F. Bearer, MD, PhD
Tuesday, August 14, 2007 from 2:00-3:00 pm EST

SAFER: State Alliance for Federal Reform of Chemicals Policy
Ted Schettler, MD, MPH
Sarah Doll, SAFER national coordinator
Tuesday, June 12, 2007 from 2:00-3:00 pm EST

Environmental Health Risks in Community Based Residential Settings
Allison Del Bene Davis, PhD, RN
Tuesday, April 10, 2007 from 2:00 - 3:00 pm EST

Prenatal Alcohol Exposure and the Developing Fetus: Links to Developmental Disabilities
Ann Streissguth, PhD
Tuesday, March 13, 2007 from 2:00 - 3:00 pm EST

Lessons about Toxic Chemical Exposures from Persons with Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities
Carolyn Graff, PhD, RN
Tuesday, February 13, 2007 from 2:00 - 3:00 pm EST

Reducing Neurotoxicity Exposure: The Dioxin Story
Robert Lawrence, MD
Tuesday, January 16, 2007 from 2:00 - 3:00 pm EST

Lead Exposure and Schizophrenia: Possible Connections?
Mark Opler, PhD, MPH
Tuesday, December 12, 2006 from 2:00 - 3:00 pm EST

Environmental Health for Nurses
Barbara Sattler RN, DrPH, FAAN
Tuesday, November 14, 2006 from 2:00 - 3:00 pm EST

Nicotine, Tobacco and Brain Damage, From the Fetus to the Adolescent:
Finding the Smoking Gun

Theodore A. Slotkin, Ph.D.
Tuesday, October 17, 2006 from 2:00 - 3:00 pm EST

Mercury Exposure and Mental Retardation
Dr. Leo Trasande, MD, MPP
Tuesday, September 12, 2006 @ 2:00 - 3:00 p.m. EST

"Self-Advocates Take Action on Environmental Health"
Bill DuSold, Chester Finn, and Joe Meadours
Friday, June 9, 2006 @ 1:00 - 2:00 p.m. EST

"Low-Level Lead Toxicity: The Ongoing Search for a Threshold"
Dr. Bruce Lanphear
Wednesday, April 19, 2006 @ 2:00 - 3:00 p.m. EST

"Interpreting Trace Element Analyses: Clinical Investigations of Neurotoxicity"
Tee L. Guidotti, MD, MPH
Wednesday, March 29, 2006 @ 2:00 - 3:00 p.m. EST

"How Exposure to Common Pesticides Can Damage the Developing Brain: Lessons Learned from Chlorpyrifos and the Organophosphates"
Theodore A. Slotkin, Ph.D.
Wednesday, February 22, 2006 @ 2:00 - 3:00 p.m. EST

"Similarities and Differences between Thimerosal Mercury and Methylmercury"
Thomas Burbacher, Ph.D.
Wednesday, December 7, 2005 @ 2:00 - 3:00 p.m. EST
Materials coming December 5, 2005.

"Prenatal and Postnatal Exposure to Tobacco Smoke: What Do We Know About the Effects of this Common Exposure for Children?"
Kimberly Yolton, Ph.D.
Wednesday, November 16, 2005 @ 2:00 - 3:00 p.m. EST

"Environmental contaminants and IQ: What is Dangerous to the Developing and Mature Brain, and How Do They Act?"
David O. Carpenter, MD
Wednesday, September 28, 2005 @ 2:00 - 3:00 p.m. EST

"A Vulnerable Population: Toxic Exposures and the DD Community"
Allison Del Bene Davis, MS, RN, The Arc of Anne Arundel County
July 13, 2005 @ 2:00 - 3:00 p.m. EDT

"Preventing Harm at School"
Claire Barnett, MBA, Executive Director of the Healthy Schools Network
June 15, 2005 @ 2:00 - 3:00 p.m. EDT

"What's the Connection? Chemical Exposures and Developmental Disabilities"
David Wallinga, MD
Wednesday, May 25, 2005 @ 2:00 - 3:00 p.m. EDT