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The effects of environmental stressors on cognitive conditions are complex, and this article provides insights into how and why these stressors continue to affect certain communities more than others.

The combined effects of environmental toxicants and social stressor exposures have been recognized by past research as important public health problems that can likely contribute to various health inequalities. Despite this, policymakers at the state and federal levels have yet to develop strategies that can reduce these multiple co-occurring exposures and prevent harm. This paper, published in Environmental Research, seeks to map the links between environmental, economic, social, and health outcomes as a dynamic complex system, by using exposure to neurodevelopmental toxicants as an illustrative example. 

Modeling Mitigating Factors of ADHD and Related Disorders Reveals a Complex Web of Factors

For this study, the researchers used system dynamics group model building to create a qualitative causal theory that links multiple interacting streams of social stressors and environmental neurotoxicants that can impact the neurodevelopment of children. The model was developed and honed during a workshop involving experts across multiple disciples. The causal map covered seven main themes: environmental exposures, social environment, health status, education, employment, housing, and advocacy. Specific neurotoxic chemicals and the overall disparity in exposure to these pollutants, as well as social conditions that can impact ADHD and other developmental disabilities, were mapped and referenced against past longitudinal studies.

Public Health Can be Improved by Breaking Institutional Feedback Loops

It is widely recognized that fetuses, infants, and children are more susceptible to environmental risks compared to adults. For that reason, mitigating exposure to environmental chemicals early in life is an important way to prevent the onset of or severity of various conditions, including public health circumstances that can mitigate the cognitive or physical consequences of ADHD or autism spectrum disorder. This research model provides a way to understand how different public health circumstances reinforce each other, offering a way for communities to identify and break feedback loops that contribute to these negative outcomes.

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Payne-Sturges, D. C., Ballard, E., Cory-Slechta, D. A., Thomas, S. B., & Hovmand, P. (2023). Making the invisible visible: Using a qualitative system dynamics model to map disparities in cumulative environmental stressors and children’s neurodevelopment. Environmental Research, 221, 115295. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.envres.2023.115295