A Strategy for Comparing the Contributions of Environmental Chemicals and Other Risk Factors to Neurodevelopment of Children

By Bellinger, David C. | Environmental Health Perspectives, April 2012 | Go to article overview

A Strategy for Comparing the Contributions of Environmental Chemicals and Other Risk Factors to Neurodevelopment of Children


Bellinger, David C., Environmental Health Perspectives


BACKGROUND: The impact of environmental chemicals on children's neurodevelopment is sometimes dismissed as unimportant because the magnitude of the impairments are considered to be clinically insignificant. Such a judgment reflects a failure to distinguish between individual and population risk. The population impact of a risk factor depends on both its effect size and its distribution (or incidence/prevalence).

OBJECTIVE: The objective was to develop a strategy for taking into account the distribution (or incidence/prevalence) of a risk factor, as well as its effect size, in order to estimate its population impact on neurodevelopment of children.

METHODS: The total numbers of Full-Scale IQ points lost among U.S. children 0-5 years of age were estimated for chemicals (methylmercury, organophosphate pesticides, lead) and a variety of medical conditions and events (e.g., preterm birth, traumatic brain injury, brain tumors, congenital heart disease).

DISCUSSION: Although the data required for the analysis were available for only three environmental chemicals (methylmercury, organophosphate pesticides, lead), the results suggest that their contributions to neurodevelopmental morbidity are substantial, exceeding those of many nonchemical risk factors.

CONCLUSION: A method for comparing the relative contributions of different risk factors provides a rational basis for establishing priorities for reducing neurodevelopmental morbidity in children.

KEY WORDS: chemicals, children, epidemiology, neurodevelopment. Environ Health Perspect 120: 501-507 (2012). http://dx.doi.org/10.1289/ehp.1104170 [Online 19 December 2011]

Assessments of the import of an association observed between an environmental chemical exposure and child neurodevelopment often focus solely on the magnitude of the effect size and its associated p-value (i.e., whether it is < 0.05). Effect size is expressed in various forms, as the difference between the mean scores of exposed and unexposed groups, the change in score per unit change in an exposure biomarker, or the change in risk (relative risk, odds ratio) associated with a particular value of the biomarker. Among the reasons cited to dismiss an effect size is that it is clinically unimportant (e.g., Kaufman 2001). This perspective fails to place the effect estimate in a public health context, however. Estimating the population burden attributable to a factor requires a metric that reflects not only the magnitude of the risk associated with the factor but also the frequency with which the factor occurs in the population (Steenland and Armstrong 2006), a concept embodied in the environmentally attributable fraction model (Institute of Medicine 1981). Although a factor associated with a large impact would be a significant burden to a patient, it might not be a major contributor to population burden if it occurs rarely. Conversely, a factor associated with a modest but frequently occurring impact could contribute substantially to population burden.

The objective of this review was to describe a population-oriented approach to estimating risk factor burden as an alternative to the usual disease-oriented approach. This approach was then used to compare the population burdens associated with major medical, social, and chemical risks to child development.

Methods

Several choices were required to apply the approach.

Risk factors. An effort was made to estimate the contributions to children's neurodevelopment of a wide range of medical conditions, including neurodevelopmental disorders, postnatal events, socioeconomic and psychosocial risks. The goal was not to provide an exhaustive accounting of all contributors, however, and the selection of risk factors was not based on a systematic review, but on the availability of data.

End point for comparison. In most studies, a battery of neurodevelopmental tests assessing many domains is administered. …

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