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Children's Environmental Health

The environment affects children differently than adults. Because their bodies are still growing, children are at greater risk if they are exposed to environmental contaminants. Contaminants are anything that can cause something to become unclean, polluted, or not pure. They can be found anywhere and some are unsafe. A toddler playing in dirt contaminated with high levels of lead can become sick from lead poisoning. A child with asthma playing outside when the air quality is bad may have an asthma attack. Environmental hazards are not just outside, but can also be found inside a child's home or school. Children living in older homes with lead-based paint can get sick from breathing lead dust or swallowing chipping paint. Drinking water from a private well and even a community water system is also a concern if it's contaminated. Bacteria and other harmful chemicals can be a threat to anyone's health, but especially to young children.

Children are not little adults—their bodies are not the same as adult bodies. Because they are small and still developing, they are more easily exposed to environmental contaminants and here's why:

  • Children breathe more air, drink more water, and eat more food per pound of body weight than adults.
  • Children are more likely to put their hands in their mouth.
  • A child's body may not be able to break down and get rid of harmful contaminants that enter their body.
  • Health problems from an environmental exposure can take years to develop. Because they are young, children have more time to develop health conditions and diseases than adults who are exposed later in their life.

Pregnancy and Early Childhood

A mother's health and lifestyle can affect her and her baby's health. Environmental exposures during pregnancy and in early childhood may cause problems in how a child develops. Some health problems can last throughout a child's life. A few conditions or illnesses that may be related to a child's environment are:

Genetics, behavior, and the environment can affect your child's health. Some of these contributing factors are:

  • Biology—genes and changes in your genes
  • Health and lifestyle choices—diet, exercise, smoking, drinking, and wearing seat belts and helmets
  • Nutritional status —not getting enough vitamins and eating enough healthy foods
  • Physical environment—a mother's or child's exposure to environmental hazards at home, at work, or at school
  • Social environment—a child's family and his or her community
  • Socioeconomic status—access to healthcare or health insurance; poverty

Much about how the environment can affect our health is unknown. What we do know is that environmental hazard exposure can affect a child's growth and development. The Tracking Network's Children's Environmental Health area helps you understand how you can protect your child from environmental exposures so they can live a safer, healthier life.

A boy with an asthma inhaler
Asthma (Tracking | Prevention)

Asthma is a chronic disease that affects the airways that carry oxygen in and out of the lungs. If a person has asthma, the inside of these airways is irritated and swollen. Asthma can cause shortness of breath, wheezing, coughing, and tightness in the chest.

Asthma is a major chronic health problem for children. It can get in the way of normal things like playing outdoors, running, and even being around pets. Taking care of asthma can also be costly for families and healthcare systems.

In 2007, a CDC study showed that 34 million, or 1 in 9 Americans, had been diagnosed with asthma during their lifetimes. Of that 34 million, 12.3 million had experienced an asthma attack in the previous year. In 2006, asthma caused 1.6 million emergency department visits, and almost half a million hospitalizations.

A boy with an asthma inhaler
Cancer (Tracking | Prevention)

About 12,500 children and adolescents under the age of 20 years are diagnosed with cancer each year. Childhood cancers remain a leading cause of childhood deaths in the United States, despite the fact that advances in health care and treatment have dramatically increased survival from these cancers.

The most common childhood cancers are leukemias, cancers of the blood cells. There are different kinds of childhood leukemia. The most common kinds are acute lymphocytic leukemia (ALL) and acute myelogenous leukemia (AML). Brain and other nervous system cancers are the second most common types of childhood cancers. Of the 12 major types of childhood cancer, leukemias and brain and other nervous system cancers account for 40% of all cases among children less than 20 years of age. Other childhood cancers include: lymphomas, sympathetic nervous system cancers, soft tissue sarcomas, renal tumors (Wilms tumor and renal carcinoma), bone tumors (osteosarcoma and Ewing sarcoma), malignant germ cell tumors, retinoblastomas, hepatic tumors, and other malignancies.

A boy with an asthma inhaler
Lead (Tracking | Prevention)

Childhood lead poisoning is preventable. Before some uses of lead were restricted, approximately 88% of preschool children in the United States had lead levels high enough to cause serious health effects. With less lead in the environment, lead poisonings have decreased and become less severe.

However, lead poisoning still occurs. Approximately 500,000 U.S. children aged 1-5 years have blood lead levels greater than 5 micrograms of lead per deciliter of blood (µg/dL), the level at which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends public health interventions.

A girl reading a book
Developmental Disabilities (Tracking | Prevention)

In the United States, about 1 in 6 children have a developmental disability. Developmental disabilities are a diverse group of severe chronic conditions that are due to mental and/or physical impairments. People with developmental disabilities have problems with major life activities such as language, movement, learning, self-help, and living by themselves.

These disabilities can begin anytime during development up to age 22. Developmental disabilities usually last throughout a person's lifetime. The specific cause of most developmental disabilities is unknown. They may result from an interaction between genetic, environmental, and social factors. Many developmental disabilities are inherited and cannot be prevented. But some can be prevented or lessened by having a healthy pregnancy, by detecting and treating conditions early, and by preventing harmful exposures and injuries.

A boy playing with building blocks
Socioeconomic Conditions (Tracking)

What happens in a population, or a group of people, can help determine how health problems and disease can happen over time.

Characteristics of a population include:

  • Sex,
  • Age,
  • Race and ethnicity, and
  • Socioeconomic factors, such as poverty.

These characteristics may be related to the number of new and existing cases of a particular disease in children. Socioeconomic factors, such as education, occupation, and income, are conditions that may affect how children live. Poverty affects families of all races and backgrounds and especially children. U.S. Census Bureau data show that an estimated 8.6% of Non-Hispanic whites, 24.7% of African Americans, 23.2% of Latino Americans, and 11.8% of Asian/Pacific Islander Americans are living in poverty. Research has shown that children living in families with very little money and no health insurance may have more poor health outcomes at birth and throughout their lives.


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