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Children and Environmental Chemicals: A Call for Better Regulation
Chemicals have many uses in the modern environment. They are used to control unwanted bugs, weeds, mold, and mildew. They are put in some fabrics to make them less flammable. They are present in paints, varnish, wood treatments, plastics, resins, insulation and other building and construction material. They are produced as by-products of industry.
Children's behavior, such as their tendency to put things in their mouths, as well as the fact that their brains and bodies are still developing, mean that chemicals' impact on them is even greater than it is for adults. For this reason the American Academy of Pediatrics is calling for special consideration for children and pregnant women when making laws about the safety of chemicals in our environment.(1)
Remember Bisphenol A?
The much-publicized recent concerns about BPA highlight the kinds of problems day-to-day exposure to chemicals can cause. Bisphenol A is a primary component of polycarbonate plastic which is used in clear plastic drinking bottles and in the lining of food and beverage cans as well as infants’ drinking bottles and sippy cups.
The chemical BPA can mimic the hormone estrogen, and animal studies have linked this chemical to multiple negative health effects including cellular changes in organs such as breasts and prostate glands, some cancers, and some abnormalities in the endocrine (hormone) system.
Studies have shown that more than 90% of humans have measurable levels of BPA in their systems and wide concern lead to discontinuation of BPA use by some producers of plasticware, particularly plastics used by infants and children. But manufacturers are still not obligated to disclose which products contain BPA and this chemical has neither been adequately investigated nor well-controlled.(2)
BPA illustrates why environmental exposure to chemicals is worth paying attention to. The residues of household chemicals remain on indoor and outdoor surfaces long after application and chemicals applied outside can be tracked into the house on shoes. Contaminants can make their way into the water, food supply and even breast milk. Potentially toxic chemicals have shown up in children’s toys, pacifiers, and, as we have seen, drinking bottles. While not all chemicals are bad, and not all levels of exposure are dangerous, there are real risks to personal and environmental health posed by these products.
Why Children Are More Likely to Be Exposed to Environmental Chemicals
ProximityYoung children crawl on the ground and put their hands and nearby objects in their mouths. They can easily ingest chemicals that may be contaminating the soil water, and surfaces of the home. Because they have thinner, less protective skin, they absorb some chemicals more readily than adults. Bug sprays, rug, floor and upholstery cleaning products, weed and mold killers and many other products that are applied by well-intentioned adults to the appropriate surfaces, all represent a greater threat to small children. They breathe the air closer to the floor and they breathe faster than adults, increasing their exposure to airborne pollutants that linger near the ground.(3)
Size and Repeated ExposuresThere are other reasons why children's exposure to environmental chemicals is likely to be intense. Toxic chemicals that are present in food and water are a greater threat to children because of their smaller size and their less developed ability to metabolize the chemicals.(2)
Children's eating habits also contribute to the greater likelihood of an intense exposure to chemicals. Children generally drink more water and eat more dairy products and fruit relative to their size than adults do. Young children also tend to have less variety in their diets with heavy concentrations on a few favorite, possibly contaminated, food groups. Finally, babies who are drinking breast milk may be simultaneously ingesting toxic chemicals that have been stored in their mother’s fat cells and secreted into the milk supply.(3)