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
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
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
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.
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.
Simon JA and Hudes ES. Relationship of ascorbic acid to blood lead levels.
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