In harm's way: toxic threats to child development

J Dev Behav Pediatr. 2002 Feb;23(1 Suppl):S13-22. doi: 10.1097/00004703-200202001-00004.


Developmental disabilities result from complex interactions of genetic, toxicologic (chemical), and social factors. Among these various causes, toxicologic exposures deserve special scrutiny because they are readily preventable. This article provides an introduction to some of the literature addressing the effects of these toxicologic exposures on the developing brain. This body of research demonstrates cause for serious concern that commonly encountered household and environmental chemicals contribute to developmental disabilities. The developing brain is uniquely susceptible to permanent impairment by exposure to environmental substances during time windows of vulnerability. Lead, mercury, and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) have been extensively studied and found to impair development at levels of exposure currently experienced by significant portions of the general population. High-dose exposures to each of these chemicals cause catastrophic developmental effects. More recent research has revealed toxicity at progressively lower exposures, illustrating a "declining threshold of harm" commonly observed with improved understanding of developmental toxicants. For lead, mercury, and PCBs, recent studies reveal that background-population exposures contribute to a wide variety of problems, including impairments in attention, memory, learning, social behavior, and IQ. Unfortunately, for most chemicals there is little data with which to evaluate potential risks to neurodevelopment. Among the 3000 chemicals produced in highest volume (over 1 million lbs/yr), only 12 have been adequately tested for their effects on the developing brain. This is a matter of concern because the fetus and child are exposed to untold numbers, quantities, and combinations of substances whose safety has not been established. Child development can be better protected by more precautionary regulation of household and environmental chemicals. Meanwhile, health care providers and parents can play an important role in reducing exposures to a wide variety of known and suspected neurodevelopmental toxicants that are widely present in consumer products, food, the home, and wider community.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Aggression / psychology
  • Attention Deficit Disorder with Hyperactivity / chemically induced*
  • Child
  • Developmental Disabilities / chemically induced*
  • Environmental Exposure / adverse effects*
  • Humans
  • Lead / adverse effects*
  • Mercury / adverse effects*
  • Neurotoxicity Syndromes / etiology
  • Polychlorinated Biphenyls / adverse effects*


  • Lead
  • Polychlorinated Biphenyls
  • Mercury