Background: Animal studies have shown that exposure to common, low-level environmental contaminants [e.g., polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), lead] causes excessive and inappropriate responding on intermittent reinforcement schedules. The Differential Reinforcement of Low Rates task (DRL) has been shown to be especially sensitive to low-level PCB exposure in monkeys.
Objectives: We investigated the relationships between prenatal PCB and postnatal Pb exposure performance on a DRL schedule in children. We predicted that a) prenatal PCB exposure would reduce interresponse times (IRTs) and reinforcements earned, and b) postnatal Pb exposure would reduce IRTs and reinforcements earned.
Methods: We tested 167 children on a DRL20 (20 sec) reinforcement schedule, and recorded IRTs and the number of reinforced responses across the session. We measured prenatal PCB exposure (cord blood), methylmercury (MeHg) (maternal hair), and postnatal Pb exposure (venous blood), and > 50 potentially confounding variables.
Results: Results indicated impaired performance in children exposed to PCBs, MeHg, and Pb. Children prenatally exposed to PCBs responded excessively, with significantly lower IRTs and fewer reinforcers earned across the session. In addition, exposure to either MeHg or Pb predicted statistically significant impairments of a similar magnitude to those for PCBs, and the associated impairments of all three contaminants (PCB, MeHg, and Pb) were statistically independent of one another.
Conclusions: These results, taken with animal literature, argue the high sensitivity of DRL performance to low-level PCB, MeHg, and Pb exposure. Future research should employ behavioral tasks in children, such as DRL, that have been demonstrably sensitive to low-level PCB, MeHg, and Pb exposure in animals.