Chemical Pollutants

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Chapter 700 Chemical Pollutants

As many as 80,000 synthetic chemicals have been developed worldwide since World War II, assuring that children everywhere face certainty of chemical exposure. Children are especially likely to be exposed to the nearly 3,000 high-production-volume (HPV) chemicals that are produced in amounts of 1 million pounds or more per year and are most widely dispersed in the environment. Biomonitoring data on blood and urine levels of over 200 synthetic chemicals obtained by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in a sample of the U.S. population through the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) document that American children are exposed to a broad array of synthetic chemicals. In some cases, children carry a greater body burden than adults. The 2006 World Health Organization (WHO) publication Preventing Disease through Healthy Environments: Towards an Estimate of the Environmental Burden of Disease estimates that approximately one third of deaths among children 0 to 1 yr of age can be attributed to environmental factors. Southeast Asia and the Western Pacific house half of the world’s children and are among the most rapidly industrializing regions of the globe, often with limited controls in place to reduce environmental exposures for children.

Children are uniquely vulnerable to chemical pollutants for several reasons:

3 Infants and children are growing and developing, and their developmental processes are uniquely sensitive to disruption by chemical pollutants. The disability resulting from exposures to chemicals during windows of early vulnerability can be severe and lifelong (Table 700-1).


Diethylstilbestrol Adenocarcinoma of the vagina after intrauterine exposure
Thalidomide Phocomelia after intrauterine exposure
Trichloroethylene Elevated risk of leukemia after intrauterine exposure
Alcohol Fetal alcohol syndrome after intrauterine exposure
Lead Neurobehavioral toxicity from low-dose exposure
Nitrosamine, vinyl chloride, ionizing radiation Increased risk of cancer after intrauterine exposure
Organophosphate insecticides Developmental neurotoxicity
Environmental tobacco smoke Increased risk of sudden infant death syndrome and asthma

A fundamental problem in environmental pediatrics is that only about 65% of HPV chemicals have been tested for their potential hazards to human health, and fewer than 30% have been assessed for their pediatric or developmental toxicity. In the USA chemicals are regulated under the 1976 Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), which assumes that chemicals cause no harm until proven dangerous and places the burden on government to demonstrate harmful health effects. This approach has been ineffective in protecting children against chemical toxicity. By contrast, the Registration, Evaluation, Authorization and restriction of Chemicals (REACH) legislation, passed by the European Union in 2006, requires chemicals to be proven safe before they come to market and places the burden on industry to document chemical safety. The Kids Safe Chemicals Act, which was introduced to the U.S. Congress in 2009 but failed to pass, takes an approach to chemical regulation similar to that of REACH. In 2009 the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for the first time required manufacturers of 67 pesticide chemicals to determine whether these chemicals have potential to disrupt the endocrine system. The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) is the agency within the United Nations that is responsible for international activities related to the sound management of chemicals. UNEP promotes chemical safety by providing information, policy advice, and technical guidance on toxic chemicals to developing and transitional countries. UNEP advocates for the establishment of international treaties to ban and control chemical substances. UNEP coordinates with other international organizations such as the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.

A large and growing body of evidence accumulated over the past four decades documents that chemical pollutants in the environment can cause disease and dysfunction in children. High-dose exposures can cause acute, clinically evident disease. Lower-dose exposures can cause subclinical injury—injury that is very real but detectable only through special testing—such as decreases in intelligence, shortening of attention span, and disruption of behavior. As is detailed in the following sections of this chapter, disease and dysfunction in children have now been definitively linked to heavy metals, pesticides, air pollutants, and plastics chemicals.

Chemical Pollutants of Major Concern

Air Pollutants

The outdoor air pollutants of greatest concern are photochemical oxidants (especially ozone), oxides of nitrogen (NOx), fine particulates, sulfur oxides, and carbon monoxide. These pollutants result principally from the combustion of fossil fuels. Automotive emissions are the major source of air pollution worldwide, followed by fixed sources such as power plants.

Elevated values of air pollutants, especially fine particulates, ozone, and NOx, are associated with respiratory problems in children, including decreased pulmonary expiratory flow, wheezing, and exacerbations of asthma. Fine particulate air pollution, even at low levels, is associated with slight increases in cardiopulmonary mortality and with an increased death rate from sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) (Chapter 367). Evidence from a prospective cohort study of air pollution and lung development in California demonstrates reduced lung growth from ages 10-18 yr, which leads to clinically significant decreases in lung function that persist into adulthood. It is notable that these effects were seen at air toxic levels below the National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS) set by the Clean Air Act, highlighting the fact that government regulatory standards are not thresholds below which toxic exposures are harmless.

Indoor air also can be an important source of respiratory irritation, because many children spend 80-90% of their time indoors. Indoor air pollution has become especially important in the USA since the energy crises of the 1970s, which led to the construction of tighter, more energy-efficient homes. Second-hand cigarette smoke is an especially hazardous constituent of indoor air and a powerful asthma trigger. Allergens in indoor air can contribute to respiratory problems and include cockroach, mite, mold, and cat and dog allergens. Some indoor molds produce chemical toxins called mycotoxins. Environmental tobacco smoke is another major contributor to exacerbations of childhood asthma.

Oil Spill Hazards

Through 2010, there have been at least 17 crude oil spills worldwide of more than 30 million U.S. gallons of oil since the first recorded spill in 1917; 10 have occurred since 1980, the largest in 2010. Although specific composition and concentrations vary, crude oil contains many toxic chemicals that are of concern to human health, including heavy metals (e.g., zinc, cadmium, and lead) (Chapters 701 and 702), volatile organic compounds (including benzene, toluene, ethyl benzene, and styrene), and semivolatile organics (such as polycyclic aromatic compounds). Chemical dispersants—mixtures of detergents and organic solvents—are often used to break up spilled oil and may also have potential adverse effects on health. Toxic effects may occur from exposure from contact with the skin, eyes, respiratory tract, or diet (e.g., drinking of contaminated water or eating of contaminated seafood). Common reported symptoms from direct exposure to crude oil include eye redness and burning, rashes, sore throat, respiratory difficulty, and acute neurologic symptoms such as headache and nausea. Children with asthma may be particularly vulnerable to respiratory toxicity. The amount and duration of exposure along with individual genetic variability influence the degree of symptoms.

It is important to note that most information on health effects comes from studies of exposed adult workers; there are few studies of health effects, acute or long-term, in children. Several of the compounds found in oil spills are classified as possible or potential carcinogens, endocrine disruptors, and neurotoxins. Studies of workers exposed to spilled oil have noted elevated blood concentrations of heavy metals like lead and cadmium, evidence of genotoxic effects, and endocrine disruption (as manifested by prolactin and cortisol changes). Children and teens are at risk for exposure in a variety of settings, including recreational activities like swimming and boating as well as clean-up efforts. Children should not be allowed to play in or around areas where the water or beach contains oil or sludge. In light of teenagers’ propensity to not adhere as well as adults to workplace safety regulations, teens should not be directly involved in spill clean-up efforts.


Lead exposure occurs worldwide (Chapter 702

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