Protecting Kids from Environmental Exposure
Children’s rapid development from before they are born through early childhood makes them more vulnerable to environmental exposures. Contact the experts at your nearest Pediatric Environmental Health Specialty Unit (PEHSU)external icon to learn how to protect your child from exposure to health hazards in the environment.
What do these situations have in common?
- You’re renovating an older home. While you’re sanding window frames, some paint dust and chips fall on the floor. Your toddler puts them in his mouth.
- You live near an abandoned old factory. Your child loves playing in the dirt—and you’ve caught her eating mud pies.
- You enjoy gardening and use pesticides to protect your garden. But you’re pregnant and wonder if pesticide exposure could harm your unborn child.
If you guessed that in each situation, children are exposed to harmful substances in their environments, you’re right!
Children are more vulnerable to environmental exposure from the prenatal period through puberty.
Protecting a pregnant woman from environmental exposures also protects the unborn child.
Greater Exposure Risk
Children are especially vulnerable to environmental contaminants due to their rapid development from before they are born through early childhood. Children’s age-appropriate behavior also exposes them to hazards. They crawl and play on the floor or in the yard where they can come into contact with harmful substances—and they put everything in their mouths.
Just their physical size puts children at greater risk of exposure. From birth, children breathe more air, drink more water, and eat more food per pound of body weight than adults. An infant’s breathing rate is more than twice that of an adult’s.
Children continue to be vulnerable as they go through the developmental changes of puberty.
In 2008, the U.S. economic cost for children’s environmental exposures was estimated at $76.6 billion. But has your child’s pediatrician ever talked to you about environmental exposures? Has your obstetrician ever taken an environmental history and asked you about exposures around you?
Let’s Talk about Environmental Health
Taking an environmental exposure history (asking about potential hazards around you) is essential for health care providers to understand patients’ exposure risks and help reduce them, but most physicians and other health care providers are not taught the importance of an exposure history during their medical education.
But most doctors agree that counseling patients about environmental health hazards could prevent exposures. Patients can also learn to speak up about anything they are concerned about.
The good news is that environmental health experts in Pediatric Environmental Health Specialty Units (PEHSUs) throughout North America can meet these needs. PEHSUs are committed to protecting children from exposure to harmful substances from the earliest stages of development before birth and throughout childhood. Protecting a pregnant woman from environmental exposures also protects the unborn child.
- Region 1: Boston, MAexternal icon
- Region 2: New York, NYexternal icon
- Region 3: Washington, DCexternal icon
- Region 4: Atlanta, GAexternal icon
- Region 5: Chicago, ILexternal icon and Cincinnati, OHexternal icon
- Region 6: El Paso, TXexternal icon
- Region 7: Kansas City, MOexternal icon
- Region 8: Denver, COexternal icon
- Region 9: San Francisco, CAexternal icon
- Region 10: Seattle, WAexternal icon
- North American PEHSUs: Alberta, Canadaexternal icon and Guadalajara, Mexicoexternal icon
PEHSUs at Work
PEHSUs have addressed children’s environmental health for 20 years. Findings from emerging research indicate that childhood environmental exposure can impact health throughout childhood and into late adult life, beginning with parental exposures prior to conception and mothers’ exposures during pregnancy. So in recent years, PEHSUs have extended their outreach to reproductive health care providers as well as pediatric care providers.
PEHSU professionals provide consultation to doctors, nurses, parents, and childcare providers in schools and daycare facilities. They also offer professional education to physicians, nurses and nurse practitioners, physician assistants, and others in reproductive and pediatric environmental medicine and within schools of medicine and nursing.
PEHSUs Tackle Mercury and Pesticide Exposures
- The New England PEHSU received a call from a primary care provider about a pregnant woman and her 15-month-old child who had both been exposed to mercury from a mercury heat generator. Staff investigated exposure levels and provided medical monitoring and follow-up recommendations to the patients and their physicians.
- After sleeping in a vacation condominium where pesticides had been used improperly, a family suffered methyl bromide poisoning. The Region 2 PEHSU assisted the family, and to prevent future poisonings, PEHSU staff developed fact sheets for the area hospitality industry on using pesticides safely. They also drafted a proposal for integrated pest management and pesticides training for the hospitality industry, health care providers, and condominium owners.
- Focused on providing health care for underserved patients likely to be exposed to hazardous substances, the Southeast PEHSU, in cooperation with Emory University School of Nursing, took a group of student nurses and nurse practitioners to serve migrant workers and their children in Colquitt County, Georgia. In the previous year, pesticide burns had been identified, so staff distributed boots to protect workers from exposure in the field. They also educated workers about pesticide exposure and safe practices when returning home from work. Additionally, 628 children of migrant workers received medical care.
Many environmental exposures in children and pregnant women can be prevented—and you can learn how. Contact the PEHSU closest to you or visit regional websites or PEHSU national websites.
CDC and ATSDR also provide information on preventing environmental exposure. You can search both websites for information on specific topics, like childhood lead exposure. Another resources is the NCEH Kids Page.
- University of Washington School of Medicine Department of Pediatrics
- University of California at San Francisco
- University of Colorado Health Science Center
- University of Missouri School of Medicine
- Texas Tech University Health Science Center- El Paso
- University of Illinois School of Public Health
- University of Cincinnati
- Harvard University School of Medicine and School of Public Health
- Mount Sinai School of Medicine Department of Pediatrics
- Georgetown University
- Emory University School of Medicine Department of Pediatrics