Background lead and mercury exposures: Psychological and behavioral problems in children

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Abstract

Background

The potential harm from exposure to nonessential metals, particularly mercury (Hg) and lead (Pb), has been the focus of research for years. Initial interest focused on relatively high exposures; however, recent evidence suggests that even background exposures might have adverse consequences for child development. Identifying the extent of these consequences is now a priority.

Methods

We assessed blood Pb and Hg levels in a biracial sample of 9–11 year-old children (N = 203). Neurodevelopment and psychological functioning assessments included hostility, disruptive behaviors, emotion regulation, and autism spectrum disorder behaviors. Parasympathetic (vagal) responses to acute stress were indexed by heart rate variability (HRV) at rest and during stress.

Results

With increasing Pb levels, children exhibit higher levels of hostile distrust and oppositional defiant behaviors, were more dissatisfied and uncertain about their emotions, and had difficulties with communication. These significant associations were found within a range of blood Pb levels from 0.19 to 3.25 μg/dL, well below the “reference value” for children of >5 μg/dL. Vagal reactivity interacted with Hg such that increasing Hg was associated with increasing autism spectrum behaviors for those children with sustained vagal tone during acute stress.

Conclusions

This study is the first to demonstrate an association between very low-level Pb exposure and fundamental psychological mechanisms that might explain prior associations with more complex outcomes such as delinquency. Analyses of vagal reactivity yielded entirely novel associations suggesting that Hg may increase autism spectrum behaviors in children with sustained vagal tone during acute stress. The novelty of these later findings requires additional research for confirmation and the cross-sectional nature of the data caution against assumptions of causality without further research.

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