Children's Environmental Health 101

Children today live in an environment that is vastly different from that of previous generations. Explosions in technology, information, population and material goods mark the end of the 20th century. Some of these changes, especially man-made chemicals, can impact not only the environment around us, but also our health and our children's health. Environmental health issues encompass the built environment, the biological environment and the chemical environment to which we and our children are exposed.

Children are especially vulnerable to environmental health issues because, beginning at the fetal stage and continuing through adolescence, they are physiologically very different from adults. They are in a dynamic state of growth, with cells multiplying and organ systems developing at a rapid rate. At birth their nervous, respiratory, reproductive and immune systems are not yet fully developed. Young children breathe more rapidly and take in more air in proportion to their body weight than do adults. They also have higher metabolic rates and a higher proportionate intake of food and liquid than do adults. Children also have different behavior patterns than adults.

All children are affected by environmental hazards. Pollution and environmental degradation know no county, state, regional, or national border. Contaminants are transported through many media including air, water, soil and food throughout the world. However, children living in poverty and children in racial or ethnic communities are at disproportionate risk for exposure to environmental hazards.

Climate change is exacerbating environmental health risks to children. With climate change comes an increased severity of adverse weather events such as floods, hurricanes, and extreme temperatures, as well as an increase in infectious diseases, degraded air quality, and threats to food and water security. Children are most vulnerable to these direct and indirect effects, so it is critical that climate change is included into the discourse, research, action, and policy surrounding children’s environmental health issues.

The US has experienced worrisome increases in certain childhood diseases, disorders, and health problems (e.g. asthma, autism, obesity, cancer). Researchers are working hard to determine to what degree these increases are linked to environmental exposures. The key to protection is prevention through research, education, and policy.

Click HERE to download our Timeline of Milestones in Children's Environmental Health.

Additional Resources

Infographic - Children's Environmental Health 101

Children's health and the environment: a new agenda for prevention research Environmental Health Perspectives, Volume 106, Supplement 3, June 1998

Child Health and Asthma Volume 103, Supplement 6, September 1995

The Future of Children: Critical Issues for Children and Youths Volume 5, Number 2, Summer/Fall 1995. Selected articles include:

Case Studies of Environmental Risks to Children Lynn R. Goldman, MD, MPH

Environmental Health Hazards: How Children Are Different From Adults Cynthia F. Bearer, MD, PhD

Environmental Policy and Children's Health Philip J. Landrigan, MD, MSc and Joy E. Carlson, MPH

Timeline of Children's Environmental Health

An Introduction to Children's Environmental Health

Preventing Child Exposures to Environmental Hazards: Research and Policy Issues. Symposium Report