Children especially vulnerable to chemical exposures: WHO
UPdate Fall 2007

The World Health Organization (WHO) has released its first ever report highlighting children’s special susceptibility to harmful chemical exposures (July 2007). The report outlines the scientific principles to be considered in assessing health risks to children. It highlights the fact that in children, the stage in their development when exposure occurs may be just as important as the magnitude of the exposure.

“Children are not just small adults,” said Dr. Terri Damstra, WHO’s team leader for the project. “Children are especially vulnerable and respond differently from adults when exposed to environmental factors. This response may differ according to the different periods of development they are going through. For example, their lungs are not fully developed at birth, or even at the age of eight, and lung maturation may be altered by air pollutants that induce acute respiratory effects in childhood and may be the origin of chronic respiratory disease later in life.”

Air and water contaminants, pesticides in food, lead in soil and many other environmental pollutants which alter the delicate organism of a growing child may cause or worsen disease, and induce developmental problems, according to the study.

The report assesses health risks to children at many stages of development, including the developing embryo, the fetus, infant and adolescent. It points out the different susceptibilities at different life stages. Developmental exposures prenatally and at birth may result in miscarriage, infant mortality, asthma, and neurobehavioural or immune impairment. In adolescents, the effects may be early or delayed puberty. The report also recognizes that emerging evidence suggests that increased risk of adult diseases including cancer and heart disease can result, in part, from exposures to certain environmental chemicals during childhood.

Neglected and malnourished children are particularly vulnerable to environmental toxins. For example, lead is known to be more toxic to children whose diets are deficient in calories, iron and calcium.