We're exposed to tens, probably hundreds, of potentially harmful chemicals every day. This is a health risk for everyone, but one group is particularly vulnerable: children.
Why kids are more at risk
Children have biological and behavioural differences to adults that make them especially vulnerable to pollutants:
Children are growing rapidly, and they have faster metabolisms. They take in more food, water and air relative to their body weight than adults do.
This means that they also take in more, proportionally, of any pollutants contained in food, water and air.
Children's organ systems are still developing, and exposure to environmental toxins during these early stages can seriously interfere with normal development.
Children’s behaviour also puts them at greater risk. They spend more time closer to the ground, and are thus at greater risk of exposure to toxic dust particles and chemicals (e.g. from cleaning products) that tend to gather on floors and carpets, and in soils.
Small children also frequently put their hands and other objects in their mouths, which can result in the ingestion of toxins picked up from surfaces.
Children’s bodies do not neutralise and excrete most toxins as well as adults do.
Children have longer to develop environmental diseases. Several diseases primarily caused by environmental factors, such as certain cancers, take many years to develop. Thus an exposure to a carcinogen like asbestos, for example, which takes decades to cause lung disease, is more serious if it occurs in childhood than in later life.
Any child is exposed to multiple environmental toxins and other potentially damaging factors, but those from poorer socio-economic backgrounds are at highest risk. The poorest residential areas tend to be the most polluted, noisy and stressful, and children from disadvantaged homes are more likely to have poor nutrition, which further weakens their defences against toxins.
Young children under the age of six are considered to be at particularly high risk. (1)
How serious is the risk?
Most of the studies on environmental pollutants have looked at the effects of relatively high doses of single substances, for example as occurs when workers are exposed during industrial accidents. But most of us are exposed to multiple pollutants over long periods, usually at much lower doses than in research studies.
Scientists don’t know what this complex chemical ‘soup’ is doing to us over the long term. What we do know, is that there are many more potentially damaging chemicals in the environment than there used to be, and this number is increasing all the time.
Tens of thousands of synthetic chemicals have been developed, most of them since the mid-twentieth century, and over 1500 new chemicals are introduced every year. Many of these chemicals have not been sufficiently tested for human health impacts and none have been tested in combination. (2)
Childhood diseases on the rise
We also know that the incidence of several serious childhood diseases is rising alarmingly, and, in all of the following examples, the growing environmental toxic load is thought by many medical scientists to be a prime suspect:
- The incidence of cancer in children went up by 26% between 1975 and 1998.
- The percentage of U.S. children with asthma doubled from 3.6% to 7.5% between 1980 and 1995.
- Autism in the U.S. doubled between 1966 and 1997. (3)
- Olivia Rose-Innes, EnviroHealth Expert, Health24, February 2007
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(1)Center for Children's Health and the Environment of the Mount Sinai School of Medicine. Children's Unique Vulnerability to Environmental Toxins
(2)Oleskey, Christopher, PhD and McCally, Michael, MD, A Guide to Biomonitoring and Body Burdens of Industrial Chemicals, Center for Children’s Health and the Environment, Mt. Sinai School of Medicine, New York, 2001.
(3)America's Children and the Environment: Measures of Contaminants, Body Burdens, and Illnesses, 2003, U.S. EPA