< Back to Articles

Hes trying to make the world safer:
Environmental epidemiologist Philippe Grandjean

The Boston Globe

View Web Version

April 2, 2007

On a June day in 1972, medical student Philippe Grandjean turned on his TV. He intended to watch his brother -- then the press secretary for the Danish minister of the environment -- at a United Nations environmental conference.

But as he watched, he was struck by a Japanese teenager who appeared on the screen. She had vision problems and severe speech deficiency.

He later learned she had been disabled by toxins in the fish her mother had eaten when pregnant. Nobody knew then that excess mercury in fish could harm unborn children. "It was a shock," he said, and it changed his career goals. "I later decided to work on environmental health and preventive medicine instead of becoming a clinician."

Today Grandjean, 57, is an adjunct professor of environmental health at Harvard School of Public Health. He has dedicated his life to studying the effects of environmental chemicals on the developing human brain.

He recently assisted the UN Environment Program with a global assessment of mercury risk. In part because of this work, 140 governments agreed earlier this year to minimize health problems from mercury pollution.

Now Grandjean is studying relationships between low-level exposure to chemicals and a host of children's diseases. Such links are notoriously difficult to prove, but Grandjean is convinced he is seeing one. In a December 2006 article in the journal Lancet, Grandjean proposed that exposure to low levels of various environmental chemicals during pregnancy may be causing a "silent pandemic" of neurodevelopmental disorders in the growing brains of children.

These disorders include autism, attention deficit disorder, mental retardation, and cerebral palsy, but Grandjean believes the bigger issue may be a subtle erosion of IQ. He cites studies showing that kids exposed to low levels of environmental toxins have lower scores on intelligence tests and more behavior problems than their unexposed peers. The research is not yet conclusive, says Grandjean, but he said it doesn't have to be to protect human health.

"We have the tradition of looking at chemicals as if they are innocent until proven otherwise," he says. "In my mind as a physician it does not make sense."

Regulators and industry often wince at this suggestion because they say it's nearly impossible to prove that chemicals are absolutely safe. Yet Grandjean has his supporters.

"Philippe is one of the few scientists willing to take the evidence and use it to protect children's health, and his Lancet piece hit a nerve with industry," said Bruce Lanphear, professor of children's environmental health at the Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center. "He's a central figure in children's environmental health, and he's asking, should we be worried about all these chemicals? I think the answer is yes."

He has done field work on the frigid Faroe Islands between Norway and Iceland, followed by work in Greenland, Madeira, and South American gold mines. "We needed to study the problems where they occur," he said. Recently, an Ecuadorian colleague told him about the country's huge cut-flower industry and the women employed in pesticide-sprayed greenhouses. Grandjean found on a simple drawing test that children whose mothers worked in the greenhouses during pregnancy couldn't keep up with the children at the same school whose mothers weren't exposed.

He said he hopes his work will ease the chemical overload on developing brains.

"This problem requires that regulatory agencies and industry take responsibility," he said. "They must make sure that chemicals remain where they are meant to be and they don't leach into food products or the environment so that we all are exposed to them."

Home: He spends about one-third of his time in Cambridge and the rest in Copenhagen, his hometown, or conducting field work around the world.

Hobbies: Bird watching. He brings his binoculars on all his trips and has watched birds in Greenland, the Amazon, New Zealand, and the Himalayas. "I love seeing an animal behind the leaves, putting my binoculars up, seeing the color or a bit of the tail, and figuring out what kind of bird it is. It's a special treat when I manage to identify one I have not seen before."

Family: Lives with ballet teacher Ida Hasselbalch in Copenhagen. His father was an insurance company CEO-turned sheep farmer-turned novelist.

Awards: Was given a "first degree of the order of Dannebrog" by the Queen of Denmark, equivalent to being knighted, for his service to the country.

< Back to Articles