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Environmental Illness in Children

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Children are more likely than adults to get an environmental illness, because they are still developing. Also, some ways that children behave, such as crawling and putting things in their mouths, can expose them to dangerous substances. Children in urban areas are most affected by environmental illnesses. The prevalence and number of deaths from asthma is highest among poor urban children. Because of their exposure to pollutants, allergens, cigarette smoke, pesticides, lead, and toxins in our environment, research shows that children may be increasingly affected by:

  • Asthma. In the past 15 years, the number of children with asthma has more than doubled. Now, more than 7 million children younger than 18 have this disease.1 Each year asthma accounts for about 14 million missed school days.2
  • Childhood cancer. From 1975 to 1990, the number of children with cancer increased, but the childhood cancer rate has stayed the same since 1990. Leukemias and central nervous system tumors are the most common types of cancer in children.2
  • Developmental disorders. Some developmental disabilities in children can be caused by infections or exposure to toxic chemicals before or after birth.

Some environmental factors affecting children's health include:

  • Air pollution. Air pollutants found indoors and outdoors may harm the lungs of children and lead to breathing problems, such as asthma. Some substances that might cause problems include pesticides, volatile organic compounds (VOCs), and ozone.2
  • Lead. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that 1 out of 20 children in the United States has elevated levels of lead in his or her blood, which can cause developmental problems. The most common sources of lead are lead-based paint, dust, toy jewelry, and some imported toys. In 2007, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) found high lead content in many children's toys and jewelry made in other countries. For a complete list of recalled products, see the CPSC website at
  • Pesticides. There are more than 1,055 substances used as pesticides in the U.S.3 Children can get exposed to pesticides in food, from products used in the house or on yards or parks, and in water. Problems that can be caused by pesticide exposure include skin rashes, nerve damage, and cancer. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that children have as little exposure to pesticides as possible.4

WebMD Medical Reference from Healthwise

Last Updated: November 14, 2014
This information is not intended to replace the advice of a doctor. Healthwise disclaims any liability for the decisions you make based on this information.
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