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Early Childhood (0-2 Years)

Air toxics and other environmental chemicals can impair the development of the brain, lung, and neurological and immune systems of the infant and small child, as well as have a direct effect on these biological systems. Infants are highly susceptible to chemical exposure because of the premature development of the body’s chemical detoxifying mechanisms, such as the liver and metabolizing enzymes. Air toxics can exacerbate many existing health problems, especially asthma. Infants who are born health compromised, premature, and with low birth weight are particularly vulnerable. Infant mortality is exacerbated by high concentrations of nitrogen dioxide, which apparently is a contributor to sudden unexpected infant death syndrome. High levels of carbon monoxide and PM10 also contribute to elevated infant mortality. Environmental tobacco smoke, excessive exposure to sunlight, pesticides and other chemicals, environmental contaminants brought in from the occupational environment, etc., profoundly affect the infant and small child.

The growth rate of tissues and organs, up to about the first 9 months, is faster than during the rest of life, making these tissues more vulnerable to carcinogens. Cancer is the fourth leading cause of death of this age group. A variety of factors, including genetic abnormalities, ionizing radiation, viral infections, certain medications, industrial and agricultural chemicals, and exposure to alcohol and tobacco products, can be involved in the development of childhood cancer. Childhood cancer increased by 13% from 1973 to 1997. The other concern is that the early exposure may increase the risk of cancer over a person’s lifetime.

Since there is a small amount of body fat in children, this leads to a concentration of lipid- soluble chemicals in smaller areas of the body. Plasma protein binding is reduced because of a lower plasma albumin concentration, causing higher chemical levels and potential toxicity. It is the unbound fraction of the chemical which has the pharmacological effect. The thick keratin layer of the skin, which protects the adult when he/she comes in contact with a toxic substance, is incomplete in the small child. Infants and toddlers are frequently placed on the floor, carpet, or grass, where they have much greater exposure to chemicals that have been used on these surfaces, such as multiple organic chemicals from carpet, pesticide residues, cleaning compounds, and fertilizers. Also, the height of the child is significant if the chemical is heavier than air and may be found in the breathing zone. Toddlers (1-2 years of age) are also vulnerable because of their level of absorption, detoxification, and organ development. The younger the child, the higher the child’s respiratory rate, and therefore the greater the effect of the inhalation of air contaminants such as air pollutants, dust mites, cockroach antigens, viruses, etc. There is a greater potential for lung problems and asthma.

The small intestine of a newborn absorbs nutrients at a high level. If the child is exposed to lead, the lead would compete with calcium for rapid transport. Although breast-feeding is considered to be the optimal form of infant nutrition, a baby is vulnerable to the current and historic maternal exposure to fat-soluble chemicals such as dioxins, other chlorinated pesticides, PCBs, and lead. Formula feeding involves large quantities of water which may contain heavy metals and nitrates that are not eliminated by boiling water. Toddlers eat a diet rich in fruit, grains, and vegetables with a greater risk of food-borne pesticide residues. The ingestion of soil by toddlers can result in lead, pesticides, mercury, lawn chemicals, or floor cleaning products also being ingested.

The infant uses milk as his/her primary source of nutrition. Although the addition of drinking water to powdered milk products can be hazardous in some instances based on the level of contamination in the water, breast milk cannot be considered to be totally safe if the mother is exposed to substantial quantities of chemicals. Because of bioaccumulation of a variety of chemicals which persist in the environment, the infant may be exposed to them in the breast milk. These chemicals may include organochlorine pesticides, PCBs, polychlorinated dibenzodioxins, polybrominated diphenyl ethers, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, mercury, lead, nicotine, and some solvents.

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