Vulnerability of children and the developing brain to neurotoxic hazards

Environ Health Perspect. 2000 Jun;108 Suppl 3(Suppl 3):375-81. doi: 10.1289/ehp.00108s3375.


For much of the history of toxicology, the sensitivity of the developing organism to chemical perturbation attracted limited attention. Several tragic episodes and new insights finally taught us that the course of early brain development incurs unique risks. Although the process is exquisitely controlled, its lability renders it highly susceptible to damage from environmental chemicals. Such disturbances, as recognized by current testing protocols and legislation such as the Food Quality Protection Act, can result in outcomes ranging from death to malformations to functional impairment. The latter are the most difficult to determine. First, they require a variety of measures to assay their extent. Second, adult responses may prove an inadequate guide to the response of the developing brain, which is part of the reason for proposing additional safety factors for children. Third, neuropsychological tests are deployed in complex circumstances in which many factors, including economic status, combine to produce a particular effect such as lowered intelligence quotient score. Fourth, the magnitude of the effect, for most environmental exposure levels, may be relatively small but extremely significant for public health. Fifth, changes in brain function occur throughout life, and some consequences of early damage may not even emerge until advanced age. Such factors need to be addressed in estimating the influence of a particular agent or group of agents on brain development and its functional expression. It is especially important to consider ways of dealing with multiple risks and their combinations in addition to the prevailing practice of estimating risks in isolation.

Publication types

  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Brain / drug effects*
  • Brain / growth & development*
  • Child
  • Child Development*
  • Environmental Health*
  • Humans
  • Intelligence
  • Neurotoxins / adverse effects*
  • Public Health
  • Public Policy
  • Risk Factors
  • Xenobiotics / adverse effects*


  • Neurotoxins
  • Xenobiotics