The brain makes us who we are and allows us to enjoy life. The brain is also the most complex organ of the human body and this makes it highly vulnerable to adverse effects.
You get only one chance to develop a brain. The developmental processes must happen in a particular sequence and at a particular time, during fetal development or during the first years after birth. If development is stalled or derailed at some stage, there is little chance of repair or catch-up. Some compensation is possible, but optimal brain functioning presumes that the right cells are available at the right locations and with the right connections.
Our intelligence depends on the integrity of the complete organ. Even subtle effects, such as memory deficits, attention problems, or motor dysfunction, can seriously impact on our health. Thus, the brain differs substantially from other important organs, such as the kidney or the liver, where we can lead successful lives without maximal function. You can donate a kidney for transplantation, but nobody would want to part with even a fraction of their brain functions.
Even very small changes – which do not necessarily amount to a neurological diagnosis – can easily impact one’s future brain functions, academic achievements, risk of delinquency, and quality of life. Our brain functions are valuable to ourselves and to society. Data on exposures to lead, mercury, and pesticides suggest that the losses to society amount to hundreds of billions of dollars every year. This calculation is based solely on losses of income and does not take into account less tangible damages associated with chemical brain drain. Also, these calculations are based on data from the US and Europe, while little information is available from developing countries, where the adverse impact may well be much greater.