When it comes to harmful environmental exposures, children
cannot be considered “little adults.” Their bodies take in proportionately
greater amounts of environmental toxins than adults, their rapid development
makes them more vulnerable to environmental interference, and their normal behavior
patterns place them at greater risk to some toxins.
Children can be exposed to environmental toxins even before birth
if the mother is exposed during pregnancy to toxins that can cross
the placenta, such as carbon monoxide or lead. Children’s
organs, including the brain, lungs, and reproductive systems, begin
developing during the fetal stage and continue to develop through
adolescence. Organ growth occurs in spurts, and it is during key
growth periods that organ systems are most vulnerable to permanent
damage. The Environmental Protection Agency recently acknowledged
the enhanced risk to children from environmental exposures when
it released draft supplemental guidelines for assessing cancer risk
from early-life exposure to carcinogens.
Children are exposed to greater amounts of environmental
Pound for pound, children breathe more air, consume more
food, and drink more water than adults, due to their substantial growth and
high metabolism. For example, a resting infant takes in twice as much air per
pound of body weight as an adult. Subject to the same airborne toxin, an infant
therefore would inhale proportionally twice as much as an adult.
Children also drink proportionally more water than adults.
Pound for pound, infants and children drink more than 2½ times as much
water as adults. A formula-fed infant consumes about one seventh of its body
weight in water each day—the equivalent of a 154-pound man drinking nearly
6½ gallons of water per day. Standards for most waterborne contaminants
are established based on the health impacts on adults, so current standards
may not suffice to protect children.
Children also may be exposed to greater amounts of toxins
in the environment due to the fact that they spend significant amounts of time
on the floor and ground. As a result, they are more likely to come into contact
with toxins found in dust, carpets, and soil, such as lead. Some airborne contaminants,
such as radon, mercury, and some pesticide vapors concentrate in greater quantities
at ground level, so small children would be exposed to higher concentrations
of these toxins than adults in the same room.
Young children (ages six months to about two years) have
a natural urge to place objects in their mouths. This normal hand-to-mouth activity
can cause them to ingest toxins in their environment to which adults would not
necessarily be exposed. For example, in homes with high dust lead levels, children
may ingest lead when they put their hands or toys in their mouths. Children
also may be exposed to arsenic and creosote, two toxic chemicals used to pressure-treat
wood, if they play on playground equipment, decks, or porches treated with these
Small children also more readily absorb nutrients (and
toxins) they ingest. For example, children require more calcium than adults
because their bones are growing, and they can absorb more calcium from the same
food sources. Although this enhanced ability is a plus when it comes to nutrients,
it also can increase a child’s exposure to toxins such as lead. A toddler
will absorb about 50 percent of ingested lead, whereas an adult will absorb
about 15 percent.
Children’s developing bodies are more susceptible
During the first months and years of life, children’s
organs are developing rapidly, making them more prone to functional damage.
For example, the nervous system continues to develop throughout childhood and
therefore is especially vulnerable to environmental factors. At the same time,
the nervous system is not well equipped to repair any structural damage caused
by environmental toxins. If a child is exposed to neurotoxins such as lead or
mercury, the resulting loss of intelligence or behavioral problems can be irreversible.
Especially during the first year of life, a child’s
ability to metabolize, detoxify, and excrete toxins differs from that of an
adult. In some cases, this works to a child’s advantage, as when they
are unable to break down a relatively harmless substance into harmful byproducts.
However, children also may be more susceptible to some toxins because their
liver and kidneys are not fully mature and cannot detoxify and excrete harmful
substances as readily as adults.
Children have more time to develop latent diseases
Many environmentally related diseases take decades before
symptoms develop. Because children have more years to live, they have more time
to develop latent diseases. For example, mesothelioma, which is caused by exposure
to asbestos, takes years to develop. Early exposure to neurotoxins may lead
to Parkinson’s disease later in life, and pesticide exposures may result
in cancer years later. Because of the long latency period of these diseases,
exposures in childhood are more likely to result in disease than exposures in
Doc4Kids Project, “Not
Safe at Home: How America’s Housing Crisis Threatens the Health of Its
Children” - Report
[PDF] - Appendix
A project of the Children’s Hospital at the Boston Medical Center, Doc4Kids
works to show the connections between children’s health and America’s
housing crisis. This report details some of the critical issues and provides
real-life examples of a child’s health being negatively affected by housing
conditions and positively affected by appropriate housing interventions.
The Future of Children - Critical Issues For Children
and Youths, Vol. 5, No. 2 - Summer/Fall 1995
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