How Environmental Toxins Impact Children in Early Life

What parents need to know and what to do about it
empty playground swings

Almost every known measure of health shows that our children are suffering from the effects of toxins. From increases in the rates of autism spectrum disorder to certain cancers, childhood is under attack. Are we just getting better at diagnosing or is something more sinister at play? This question led me to talk with dozens of researchers, doctors, and health pioneers to better understand what has baffled so many, and every single expert I spoke with agreed on the same thing: childhood is under tremendous and growing pressure. But just where is that pressure coming from and what can we do about it?

Chemical warfare waged against children

Psychologist Kim John Payne perhaps describes it best as a “war on childhood.” The details of this war fill two Green Mama books, dozens and dozens of scientific studies, and piles of medical notes. Yet, taking even a cursory glance at current health statistics for children, one thing is clear: our children are the unwitting victims of a battle fought with the chemical weapons of hidden toxins, ones that have permeated every level of their environment, from food to furniture, clothing to toys. No child is left unscathed in this battle, and the oppressor is indifferent to culture, location, and heritage.

The United States alone approves an average of seven new chemicals daily and has more than 85,000 chemicals in commerce, according to the California Department of Toxic Substance Control. Toxins are all around us. They are in our food and water. They are in our indoor air. They are in our children’s toys, shampoos, creams, disposable diapers, baby food, and formula. They are in us. In Rick Smith and Bruce Lourie’s book, Slow Death by Rubber Duck, the startling results of 27 major body-burden studies conducted worldwide reveal that we’re all polluted: even newborn babies, who were found to have, on average, 200 industrial chemicals and pollutants in their umbilical cord blood.

Children absorb chemicals more easily than adults

As adults, we are better able to process contaminants through both excretion and storage. Unfortunately, children’s bodies don’t yet have this luxury, which means toxins have ample opportunity to interfere with their rapidly developing organ systems. Fetuses are even less prepared, and are unable to detoxify at all. It’s not until about six months of age that babies fully develop some of their most important defenses: the blood-brain barrier, kidneys, and other organs of detoxification.

The busyness of childhood and the greater amount of physical activity children engage in require a lot of oxygen. In fact, children breathe 50 percent more air per pound of body weight than adults! Add to that their naturally faster metabolism, and the result is a quicker rate of potential contaminant absorption. If, for example, a child accidentally swallowed something contaminated with lead, he would absorb almost half of it, while an adult who swallowed the same amount would only absorb about one-tenth.

The growing health costs of toxins

What can’t be ignored are the health and developmental disorders that have risen concurrently with the increased use of chemicals in consumer products.

  • ADHD-reported cases rose 41 percent between 2003 and 2013. At the time of writing, 1 in 10 school-aged children will be diagnosed with ADHD in the United States, with similar rates assumed for Canada.

  • Asthma in the United States and Canada has quadrupled in the last 20 years, with 10 percent of children now suffering from it, according to 2011 numbers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

  • Autism spectrum disorders affect 1 in 88 North American children. According to the CDC, from 2006-2008, 1 in 6 American children were diagnosed with a developmental disorder, ranging from mild speech impairments to autism. 

  • Infertility rose from 8.5 percent in 1992 to 15 percent in 2009–10 and now affects up to 16 percent of couples in both the United States and Canada.

  • Invasive cancer rates in children rose 29 percent in the 20 years leading up to the National Cancer Institute’s most recent (2004) numbers.

  • Life expectancy in Canada is ranked 13th in the world at 81.5 years; the United States is ranked 51st at just over 78.5 years.

  • Mental health disorders affect 1 in 5 North American youth, ages 15 to 24. In this age group, suicide accounts for 24 percent of all deaths in Canada and is the second leading cause of death in the United States.

  • Obesity has more than doubled in the past 30 years for juveniles in both the United States and Canada; nearly a third of all children in both countries are overweight or obese.

  • Type 2 diabetes used to occur almost exclusively in adults, but now 1 in 3 American and Canadian children born from 2000 onward will be diagnosed with the disease.

Main sources of toxins for very young children

So much about parenting has become a value war put on the parents: will you cloth diaper, breastfeed, co-sleep, give your child a pacifier? However a parent chooses to raise their child, it is clear is that no parent willingly chooses to expose their little one to toxins that might alter, shorten, or otherwise devastate their child’s health. However, there are a few elements in a child’s early life that may have parents unwittingly putting them at risk. (Follow each link for more details and how to reduce exposure from these sources.)

In the home—A baby’s room is especially at risk because new baby furniture can be among the most polluted of household items, off-gassing chemicals like toluene, benzene, and formaldehyde.

On the skin—Thinner skin, breathing more oxygen, and an inability to robustly detoxify makes infants and children much more vulnerable to chemicals in the personal care products used on them.

In breastmilk and formula—Both breastmilk, because mom is also absorbing environmental chemicals, and formula, which is manufactured and packaged with them, can deliver toxins to baby.  

The second great tragedy of the war on our children’s health is that parents are made to feel culpable for the state of it as a whole. Every choice feels loaded and is made even more difficult by having to also arm ourselves with extensive chemical knowledge in order to provide the basics. Shouldn’t the hard decisions just be whether our kids want the red apples or green ones, instead of trying to decipher which ones are laden with the fewest pesticides? 

We want our children to grow up in a world with fewer trade-offs and by making small changes to shape their futures we can give them the best and healthiest step-up we can!