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Children are not 'little adults' when it comes to chemical exposures PDF Print E-mail
baby_under_sheetDr Mariann Lloyd-Smith, Senior Policy Advisor for the National Toxics Network, talks about the importance of protecting children’s environmental health and why children should not be treated as ‘little adults’ when it comes to chemical exposures.

Children’s unique vulnerability to hazardous chemicals is recognised by international agencies such as the United Nations and the World Health Organisations. It’s also well established that a child's biology, physiology and behaviour are all factors that place them at greater risk than adults to chemical exposures.

According to Dr Lloyd-Smith, bio-monitoring studies of blood, faeces and breast milk indicate widespread contamination of children with persistent bio-accumulative toxics (PBTs) such as dioxins, metals, organochlorines, perflurochemicals, phthlates and brominated flame-retardants.

Many of the PBTs children are exposed to can be found in their homes, schools and child care centres. Everyday items like paint, carpets, electricals, cooking implements and pesticides can contain PBTs and contribute to children’s exposure and body burden of chemicals.

Children’s susceptibility during developmental stages

Embryos, foetuses, newborns and young children are at greatest risk from chemical exposures.  Depending on the state of development and other factors, a child's detoxification system and ability to excrete toxins differs from adults. While at times this can offer greater protection, it can also increase their vulnerability. Should the enzyme systems responsible for detoxification be damaged early in life, the result can be a lifetime of disabling chronic illness.

The timing of chemical exposures is also significant. Some studies suggest that early exposure to carcinogens can increase the risk of developing cancer if exposures begin early in childhood. Exposure to some chemicals and heavy metals in utero and early childhood can produce life long disabilities in neurological function and learning For instance, children’s exposure to small amounts of lead can cause delinquency and reduced IQ. Other substances can affect the endocrine (hormone) system and result in developmental problems while others can promote cancers in children.  

Embryos and foetus

  • Prolific cell growth during this period leads to higher risk of cellular mutations as a result of chemical exposures.
  • The placenta does not fully protect the foetus from exposure to all chemicals; eg carbon monoxide, ethanol and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) all cross the placenta.


  • Lung fluid is rapidly cleared by the pulmonary lymphatic system so there is increased absorption of airborne chemicals.
  • The gastrointestinal tract has a high permeability for breast milk, so ingestion of contaminates from breast milk, water and formulas is increased.
  • Baby skin is highly permeable and can absorbs up to three times the amount of a chemical compared to an adult for the same area of skin.

Early childhood

  • The nervous system is developed during the first years of life and doesn’t have the ability to repair structural damage. Children are therefore at higher risk during this time from exposure to neurotoxic chemicals such as pesticides, lead and mercury.
  • In relation to their body weight, young children eat more food, drink more water and breathe more air than adults, so are exposed to more chemicals from these sources such as pesticide residues and food additives.
  • Generally children are less able to metabolise chemicals because their metabolic pathways for detoxification are not fully matured.
  • Children are physically closer to the ground so are exposed to chemicals that settle in their breathing zone.
  • Children’s hand-to-mouth behaviour brings them into contact with chemicals such as plasticisers, flame-retardants, pesticide residues and heavy metals found in dust, soil, carpets and on contaminated surfaces.

School age and adolescents

  • Exploration of new things and environments brings children into contact with different types of chemical exposures such as personal care products, art and craft materials and pesticide residues on sports fields.
  • Children are spending more time at school where they may be exposed to chemicals in the school grounds on in classrooms.
  • Adolescents are vulnerable to chemical exposures because their organs and body systems are undergoing final maturation, especially the reproductive system, brain, skeleton and muscles.

Despite the knowledge that children are at great risk and the mounting evidence indicating they are being exposed to a significant chemical load, Australian regulators have been slow to respond. Removing dangerous chemicals from the marketplace is a slow and complex process and chemical assessment regimes do not take a precautionary approach when it comes to protecting children’s health and their right to a healthy environment.


Generations X Blood Bio-monitoring Survey

Organochlorine Pesticides (OCPs) and Polybrominated Diphenyl Ethers (PBDEs) in the Australian population: Levels in Human Milk


Dr Mariann Lloyd-Smith PhD (Law)
National Toxics Network Inc.
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