Children and Toxic Chemicals

Our children today live in an environment that is fundamentally different from that of 50 years ago. In many ways, their world is better. The traditional infectious diseases have largely been eradicated. Infant mortality is greatly reduced. The expected life span of a baby born in the United States is more than two decades longer than that of an infant born in 1900.

But at the same time, today’s children face hazards that were neither known nor imagined a few decades ago. Children are at risk of exposure to thousands of new synthetic chemicals. Since World War II, more than 80,000 new chemicals have been invented. Many of these chemicals have been dispersed widely into the environment. Some will persist in the environment for decades and even centuries. Most of these chemicals did not previously exist in nature.

Nearly 3,000 chemicals are high-production-volume (HPV) chemicals. They are produced each year in quantities of greater than one million pounds. HPV chemicals are used extensively in our homes, schools, and communities. They are widely dispersed in air, water, soil, and waste sites.

Over 4 billion pounds of toxic chemicals are released by industry into the nation's environment each year, including 72 million pounds of recognized carcinogens.

Of the top 20 chemicals discharged to the environment, nearly 75% are known or suspected to be toxic to the developing human brain.

What makes these chemicals such a threat to children’s health?

  • Easy absorption. Synthetic chemicals can enter our children's bodies by ingestion, inhalation, or through the skin. Infants are at risk of exposure in the womb or through breast milk. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), more than 200 high-volume synthetic chemicals can be found in the bodies of nearly all Americans, including newborn infants. Of the top 20 chemicals discharged to the environment, nearly 75 percent are known or suspected to be toxic to the developing human brain.
  • Mass production. Nearly 3,000 chemicals are high-production-volume (HPV) chemicals. Produced in quantities of more than 1 million pounds, HPV chemicals are used extensively in our homes, schools and communities. They are widely dispersed in air, water, soil and waste sites. Over 4 billion pounds of toxic chemicals are released into the nation's environment each year, including 72 million pounds of recognized carcinogens.
  • Too little testing. Only a fraction of HPV chemicals have been tested for toxicity. Fewer than 20 percent have been studied for their capacity to interfere with children's development. This failure to assess chemicals for their possible hazards represents a grave lapse of stewardship by the chemical industry and by the federal government. CEHC believes that this is a failure of stewardship that puts all of our children at risk.
  • Heavy use of pesticides. More than 1.2 million pounds of pesticides — many of them toxic to the brain and nervous system — are applied in the United States each year. These chemical pesticides are used on lawns and gardens, and inside homes, schools, day-care centers and hospitals. The United States has 1.3 percent of the world’s population but uses 24 percent of the world’s total pesticides.
  • Environmental Persistence. Many toxic chemicals have been dispersed widely into the environment. Some will persist in the environment for decades and even centuries.

Learn more about the environmental toxins in our everyday world that can affect children.

References:

United States Environmental Protection Agency. Chemical Hazard Data Availability Study: What Do We Really Know About the Safety of High Production Volume Chemicals?Washington, DC: Office of Pollution Prevention and Toxics, 1998.

United States Environmental Protection Agency. Toxic Release Inventory (TRI) Program. Washington, DC, February 21, 2008.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Third National Report on Human Exposure to Environmental Chemicals Atlanta (GA): CDC, 2005.