Our friend’s little girl, Joelle, is sick. She is in the hospital. Late at night, as we rock our baby to sleep after a night feed, we think of what our friends are going through and our hearts ache for them as we are grateful that our daughter is healthy. Thinking about our friend’s child and her illness, though not caused by environmental factors, got us thinking about how vulnerable millions of children are to the hazards of this dirty world we have brought them into.
Fetuses and young children are more vulnerable for several reasons: Their biological defence mechanisms are still forming, and they are can’t detoxify harmful substances and repair damage the way adults can. Children also eat more food, drink more liquids, and breathe more air than adults on a pound-for-pound basis.
The old saying goes that a child has to eat a peck of dirt, but what if that dirt contains harmful chemicals? Children are in a critical period of development, and toxic exposures can profoundly hurt them.
Pesticides on fruits and vegetables can affect children before they’re even born. Research has shown that mothers who are exposed to pesticides can have babies with low birth weights, higher risks of developmental delays and attentional and behavioural disorders.
Childhood asthma in particular has become a major epidemic and has been linked to poor air quality. Air containing large amounts of particulate matter as well as high ozone levels can trigger asthma attacks in children — at greater risk are kids living in urban areas or near highways.
Lead, a commonly ingested hazard, is found in older buildings, and nearby dust can have a high lead content. If soil is near a road, it can be polluted with leaded gasoline. The aforementioned “peck of dirt” can therefore cause slowed mental and physical growth as well as headaches, muscle and joint weakness and behavioural problems.
Pollutants in the environment such as mercury and flame retardants such as PCBs and PDBEs can end up in our food. A common source of these substances is fish from contaminated waterways. Fetal and childhood exposure to these chemicals can affect neurological development.
A major factor in the exposure of children to these health-threatening pollutants is the income bracket they happen to be born into. Lower income children tend to live closer to industrial areas, highways, and in older buildings. They and their mothers may also consume lower quality food that may be more subject to contamination.
We owe it to these kids to clean up our act and give them clean air to breath and clean food (and dirt) to eat. Get well soon, Joelle.
– Sophia Dore is an environmental scientist with Conestoga-Rovers & Associates. Andrew Laursen is an assistant professor at Ryerson University; email@example.com.