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Table of Contents > Articles > The Environment and Your Child's ...
The Environment and Your Child's Health

There are many things a parent can do to understand and combat some of the main environmental threats to children: air pollutants, lead, mercury, and pesticides.

Air Pollutants

Children react to pollutants in the air more than adults do. A resting child takes in twice as much air—and therefore, twice as many pollutants—as a resting adult in the same amount of time. The rates of asthma, a condition often triggered by air pollutants, among children under 5 have increased tremendously in the last 20 years, and asthma is now the primary reason children are hospitalized. Some of the major air pollutants are mold, dust, and tobacco smoke. Molds can be found in mattresses, bathrooms, and damp basements. Use exhaust fans in the bathrooms and avoid foam rubber pillows and mattresses. Home air filters may help reduce dust particles in the air. To help protect your child from tobacco smoke, don't smoke, and don't allow other people to smoke inside your house or car.


Lead is one of the most researched environmental toxins, and lead poisoning is one of the most preventable childhood hazards. Still, one million American children have high levels of lead in their blood. Even low levels can cause attention deficit, lower IQ, and juvenile delinquency. Find out about lead levels in your house paint and water, especially if you live in an older home (one that was built more than 20 years ago). Lead-based paint in older homes is the main source of lead exposure for children. Repair paint that is chipped or peeling. If you're planning to renovate, find out about safe ways to remove the lead-based paint. Lead pipes are another source of contamination; they can add lead to tap water (a child drinks more water per pound than an adult). If you have lead pipes, it may be a good idea to use bottled water. If you use tap water for drinking or cooking, use cold water. Hot tap water dissolves more lead into the water than cold. Also, run the tap for 15 to 30 seconds first if you haven't used it in the past 6 hours. Water that has been sitting in the pipes may contain more lead. Finally, an article in the Journal of the American Medical Association reported last year that vitamin C may help reduce lead levels in the blood.


Babies can be harmed in the womb if their mother eats fish that contains mercury. Experts advise women of childbearing age to limit their consumption of shark, tuna, swordfish, and other fish that may have high levels of mercury. Another source of mercury is a preservative called thimerosol, found in some vaccines. The American Academy of Pediatrics and the U.S. Public Health service are working to reduce or eliminate this ingredient from vaccines. In the meantime, ask your pediatrician which vaccines contain this ingredient.


Although there are about 350 pesticides used commercially, only nine have undergone thorough testing to show their effect on humans. Keep in mind that a child also eats more food per pound than an adult—including fruits and vegetables. While parents should encourage their children to eat lots of fruit and vegetables, they need to be aware that these may have pesticides on them. Be sure to always wash any produce before it's eaten. Also, in-season produce is likely to have fewer pesticides.

Hormone Disruptors

Hormone disruptors are chemicals that affect the ability of the body's hormones to work properly. They can also prevent hormones from being produced. Hormone disruptors, which include PCBs, some pesticides, and possibly some chemicals in plastics, may harm the reproductive system and the immune system. The EPA is currently working to research and reduce environmental exposure to these chemicals. While tap water is generally free of these contaminates, well water should be tested by a certified laboratory (information can be obtained from your state environmental protection office). Be sure to use plastic food containers appropriately—only heat food in microwave-safe containers.

Suggested Resources

For more information about environmental toxins, talk with your doctor or child's pediatrician. You can also visit the following Web sites:

Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry

American Academy of Pediatrics

Children's Environmental Health Network

Environmental Protection Agency

National Center for Environmental Health


American Academy of Pediatrics, Committee on Environmental Health. Toxic effects of indoor molds. Pediatrics. 1998;101(4):712-714.

Bellinger D, Sloman J, Leviton A, Rabinowitz M, Needleman HL, and Waternaux C. Low-level lead exposure and children's cognitive function in the preschool years. Pediatrics. 1991;87(2):219-227.

Children's Environmental Health Network. "An Introduction to Children's Environmental Health." Available at:

Moss ME, Lanphear BP, Auinger P. Association of dental caries and blood lead levels. JAMA. 1999;281(24):2294-2298.

Needleman HL, Schell A, Bellinger D, Leviton A, Allred EN. The long-term effects of exposure to low doses of lead in childhood. N Engl J Med. 1990;322:83-88.

Paulozzi LJ. International trends in rates of hypospadias and cryptochidism. Environ Health Perspect. 1999;107(4):297-302.

Schmidt CW. Poisoning young minds. Environ Health Perspect. 1999;107(6):303-307.

Simon JA and Hudes ES. Relationship of ascorbic acid to blood lead levels. JAMA. 1999;281(24):2289-2293.

Review Date: February 2000
Reviewed By: Integrative Medicine editorial

Copyright © 2004 A.D.A.M., Inc

The publisher does not accept any responsibility for the accuracy of the information or the consequences arising from the application, use, or misuse of any of the information contained herein, including any injury and/or damage to any person or property as a matter of product liability, negligence, or otherwise. No warranty, expressed or implied, is made in regard to the contents of this material. No claims or endorsements are made for any drugs or compounds currently marketed or in investigative use. This material is not intended as a guide to self-medication. The reader is advised to discuss the information provided here with a doctor, pharmacist, nurse, or other authorized healthcare practitioner and to check product information (including package inserts) regarding dosage, precautions, warnings, interactions, and contraindications before administering any drug, herb, or supplement discussed herein.

Vitamin C (Ascorbic Acid)
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