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Early Exposure to Toxic Substances Damages Brain Architecture: Working Paper No. 4

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Publication Date: January 2006

Publisher(s): National Scientific Council on the Developing Child

Funder(s): John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation

Funder(s): John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation

Special Collection: John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation

Topic: Population and demographics (Children and youth)

Keywords: Developmental neurobiology; Toxic substances; Child development

Type: Report

Coverage: United States


New science shows that exposure to toxins prenatally or early in life can have a devastating and lifelong effect on the developing architecture of the brain. Exposures to many chemicals have much more severe consequences for embryos, fetuses, and young children, whose brains are still developing, than for adults. Substances that can have a truly poisonous effect on the brain—known as neurotoxins—can be found in environmental chemicals such as lead and mercury, in recreational drugs such as alcohol, nicotine, and cocaine, and in prescription medications, such as some acne treatments. Most neurotoxin exposure is preventable. This report summarizes the complex scientific research on which toxins present the greatest risk at various stages of brain development, addresses popular misconceptions about the relative risk and safety of some common substances, and suggests policies that can help reduce the enormous human and economic costs of exposure to toxins during development.