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Children's Unique Vulnerability to Environmental Toxins

Children are uniquely vulnerable to environmental toxins.
This heightened susceptibility stems from several sources.

Children have greater exposures to environmental toxins than adults.

Pound for pound of body weight, children drink more water, eat more food, and breathe more air than do adults. For example, children ages one through five years eat three to four times more food per pound than the average adult American. The air intake of a resting infant is twice that of an adult per pound of body weight. These patterns of increased consumption reflect the rapid metabolism of children. The implication for environmental health is that children will have substantially heavier exposures pound for pound than adults to any toxins that are present in water, food, or air. This has been demonstrated clearly in the case of children's exposures to pesticides in the diet. Two additional characteristics of children further magnify their exposure to toxins in the environment: their hand-to-mouth behaviour, which increases their ingestion of any toxins in dust or soil, and their likelihood of playing close to the ground, which increases their exposure to toxins in dust, soil, and carpets as well as to any toxins that form low-lying layers in the air, such as certain pesticide vapors. Children are undergoing rapid growth and development, and their developmental processes are easily disrupted.

Many organ systems in young children-the nervous system, the reproductive organs, the immune system-undergo very rapid growth and development in the first months and years of life. During this period, structures are developed and vital connections are established. Indeed, development of the nervous system continues all through childhood, as is evidenced by the fact that children continue to acquire new skills progressively as they grow and develop, crawling, walking, talking, reading, and writing. The nervous system is not well able to repair any structural damage that is caused by environmental toxins. Thus, if cells in the developing brain are destroyed by chemicals such as lead, mercury, or solvents, or if vital connections between nerve cells fail to form, there is high risk that the resulting neuro-behavioral dysfunction will be permanent and irreversible. The consequences can be loss of intelligence and alteration of normal behavior.

Because children have more future years of life than do most adults, they have more time to develop chronic diseases that may be triggered by early environmental exposures.

Many diseases that are triggered by toxins in the environment require decades to develop. Examples include mesothelioma caused by exposure to asbestos, leukemia caused by benzene, breast cancer that may be caused by DDT, and possibly some chronic neurologic diseases such as Parkinson's disease that may be caused by exposure to environmental neurotoxins. Many of those diseases are now thought to be the products of multistage processes within the body's cells that require many years to evolve from earliest initiation to actual manifestation of illness. Consequently, certain carcinogenic and toxic exposures sustained early in life appear more likely to lead to disease than do the same exposure encountered later in life.

This summary was prepared by the Center for Children's Health and the Environment of the Mount Sinai School of Medicine. CCHE's mission is to promote the health of children by conducting environmental health and policy research. CCHE was established in 1998 with the support of The Pew Charitable Trusts. CCHE's director is Philip J. Landrigan M.D., M.Sc., a pediatrician who chairs the Department of Community and Preventive Medicine at Mount Sinai.


National Academy of Sciences: Pesticides in the Diets of Infants and Children. Washington, DC: National Academy Press, 1993.

Landrigan, PJ, Carlson JE: Environmental policy and children's health. The Future of Children 1995;5:34-52.

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