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Ask an expert: Children and chemical exposure

Dr. Stephanie Miles-Richardson is an environmental health scientist in Atlanta, Georgia
Dr. Stephanie Miles-Richardson is an environmental health scientist in Atlanta, Georgia  

October 26, 2000
Web posted at: 11:59 AM EDT (1559 GMT)

Question: Are there different things to consider when looking at chemical exposures in children vs. adults?

Answer: When looking at chemical exposures in children, you must consider the various ways in which they are more susceptible than adults to most types of exposure. Size alone is a factor. Children are smaller than adults; their exposure to chemicals or hazardous substances is therefore greater in proportion to their body weight than similar exposures are to adults.

The shorter height of children is also a factor. Many airborne contaminants are heavier closer to the ground, and children have a higher chance of breathing more of those contaminants than adults do. Children's activities and play habits also put them at more risk for exposure. Children have a greater tendency to put items -- or dirt-covered hands -- in their mouths and that provides a greater chance for exposure to contaminants in soil.

During critical growth stages, the developing body systems of children may sustain permanent damage from exposures that would not have an effect on adults. Children also have less ability to avoid hazards than adults. Children depend completely on adults for decisions that affect their health, housing and medical care.

In the United States, about one in four children lives within 4 miles of a hazardous waste site. Children who live near such sites often have a greater potential for health problems related to exposures to hazardous substances. Living near a waste site does not necessarily result in health problems for children or for adults, but children are more susceptible than adults to exposure. The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry has developed a child health initiative for considering the potential health risks for children and has set up pediatric environmental health specialty units throughout the country to assist local health-care providers in caring for children who have been exposed to hazardous substances.

Visit the agency's Web site for information about the child health initiative, including updates and useful links to the field of pediatric environmental health.

Dr. Stephanie Miles-Richardson is a commissioned officer in the U.S. Public Health Service and is stationed at the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry in Atlanta, Georgia. She is an environmental health scientist in the research implementation branch of the toxicology division.

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