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Environmental Hazards

  • Environmental hazards are among the top health concerns many of us have for our children.
  • Interaction with these hazards can have an adverse impact on the health of humans.
  • This impact is felt first among the most vulnerable members of a population. Children, because of their unique physical, biological, and social characteristics, are among the most vulnerable members of our population.
  • Fortunately, our knowledge about environmental health, the field of science that concerns how the environment influences human health and disease, has expanded greatly in the past decade.
  • Research has shed light on the relationship of children’s health and developmental conditions to toxicants (a “toxicant” refers to a chemical agent; “toxin” is often used for a biological agent) in the air they breathe, the water they drink, and the food they eat.
  • Our children’s health is influenced by the interaction of genetic susceptibility and environmental exposures, and these gene–environment interactions are influenced by behavior, gender, age, and developmental stage.  Many questions about these relationships, however, remain unanswered.
  • The purpose of this section is to 1) describe the differences between adults and children in physical, biological, and social environments, and to highlight why children should not be treated as “little adults”; and to 2) review specific hazards that families are potentially exposed to and ways to diminish these exposures.

Why Children are Different than Adults and More Susceptible to Environmental Toxicants

1. Unique Behavior

  • The normal behavioral development of a child will influence environmental exposures.
  • Infants and young children may not be able to remove themselves from noxious environments.
  • Normal children crawl on the floor and ground; and have hand-to-mouth and hand-to-object behavior.

This behavior is one common cause of lead poisoning in environments with high levels of lead dust; or a cause of arsenic exposure while playing on playground equipment treated with arsenic. In the course of normal play, children will frequently place their mouths on playground equipment or their hands in their mouth, inadvertently exposing themselves to this toxic chemical.

2. Different “Living Zones”

  • Breathing zones, the places in space where individuals breathe, are also closely related
    to development.
  • The breathing zone for an adult is typically four to six feet above the floor.
  • However, for a child, it will be closer to the floor.
  • It is within these lower breathing zones that heavier chemicals such as mercury settle out and radon accumulates.
  • Also, with children in more intimate contact with the soil and grass, they are more likely to be exposed to toxicants by ingestion and through their skin.

3. Oxygen Consumption

  • Because children are physically smaller than adults, their metabolic rate is higher than that of adults and they consume more oxygen relative to their size than do adults.
  • As a result, a child’s exposure to an air pollutant may be greater than an adult’s.
  • For example, if radon is present, a six-month-old child with an average oxygen consumption rate will, over a given period of time, receive twice the exposure to radon as will an adult.

4. Quantity and Quality of Food Consumed

  • Children’s higher metabolic rates mean that they need to consume more calories per pound of
    body weight than adults. In other words, the amount of food that children consume per pound of body weight is higher than that of adults.
  • Consider the amount of water that an infant who receives formula reconstituted in boiled tap water drinks every day. The average infant consumes six ounces of formula per kilogram of body weight. For the average male adult, this is equivalent to drinking 35 cans of soda pop a day.
  • Pound for pound, infants and children are more greatly exposed to any toxicants in food, water or air.

5. Immature Metabolic Pathways

  • The body has specific chemical pathways used to digest, process, and remove substances found in air, food, and water.
  • Important differences exist between children and adults in the ability to absorb chemicals into the body and the ability to transform and eliminate chemicals. For example, children absorb lead much better from the gut into the body than adults, resulting in much higher lead levels.

6. Specific Body Organs may be Susceptible

  • Children are also different from adults because their organs are undergoing growth and maturation, a process that may be adversely affected by exposure to harmful chemicals.
  • An example is how a child’s developing lung can be affected by secondhand smoke.

Specific Hazards

(just click on the hazard of interest for detailed information)

Carbon monoxide
Water Hazards