Human Behavior Altered by Toxic Chemicals? Scientists Warn of Risks

International scientists from around the world are warning that chemical pollutants in the environment have the potential to alter animal and human behavior.  In fact, a scientific forum of 30 experts* have formed a united agreement of concern about chemical pollutants and have even set up a set of rules to help protect the environment from behavior-altering chemicals. 

“…we are excited about being part of a ground-breaking area in the potential use of behavioral responses to chemicals in chemical risk assessments…”

-Joel Allen, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)

The takeaway: The effect of toxic chemicals on human behavior has been suspected** but never formally tested or assessed – the scientists say this needs to change.  The scientists are not just concerned about the obvious pollutants such as pharmaceutical drugs leaking into the environment, but they also warn about the potential unknowns such as chemicals in plastics, washing agents, fabrics and personal care products.

The scientists’ recommendations are:

  • Improve the mechanisms of how science studies contaminated-induced behavioral changes.
  • Develop new and adapt existing standard toxicity tests to include behavior.
  • Develop an integrative approach to environmental risk assessment, which includes behavior. Not just mortality, growth and reproduction.
  • Improve the reliability of behavioral tests, which need to allow for variation in behavioral reactions.
  • Develop guidance and training on the evaluation of reporting of behavioral studies.
  • Better integration of human and wildlife behavioral toxicology.

*The world leading experts came from a variety of relevant disciplines including environmental toxicology, regulatory authorities and chemicals risk assessors.


**History shows us there are other examples of behavioral alterations from chemicals. During the 19th century, the phrases “Mad as a hatter” and “Crazy as a painter” were coined when those people working in these trades were found to have changed behaviors, esp. from the use of lead and mercury. In more recent times concerns over metal toxicity resulted in the enforcement of unleaded fuels.

Source: German Environment Agency (UBA), 2021 International Forum. Umweltbundesamt | For our environment