Children are more susceptible to damage from toxic substances because:

  • Children breathe more air, eat more, and drink more for their size compared to adults, so they take in more environmental pollutants relative to their body weights.
  • More likely to put fingers and foreign objects into their mouths, children have increased oral ingestion of environmental toxics.
  • Children have more skin surface relative to their body weights, so they will absorb comparatively more substances that can penetrate skin.
  • Children’s noses and mouths are nearer the ground, where many types of heavier-than-air vapors and dusts collect.
  • Children tend to breathe more through their mouths rather than their noses, thereby taking in more unfiltered air.

In addition to heavier exposure to toxics, young children are more susceptible because their nervous and immune systems are not yet fully developed.  That’s why lead poisoning is especially damaging to children under age 6.

Where children live matters

While all children are at increased risk from exposure to toxic chemicals, children in low-income communities are at especially high risk.  They are more likely to live in communities with high air pollution and substandard housing.

Demographic San Diego County EHC Communities
  Under 18 Under 6 Under 18 Under 6
Children, % of total population  25%  9%  34%  13%
Children, % living in poverty*  37%  38%  82%  83%
Children, % living in high-poverty neighborhoods**  24%  22%  100%  100%

*Up to 200% of the federal poverty level, based on 2010 Census data
**Defined as the top quintile of census tracts with high poverty levels in the Environmental Justice Screening Method

In addition to lead poisoning, elevated rates of asthma and birth defects are among the adverse health outcomes associated with living in polluted communities.  

Attacks of asthma and resulting hospitalization and emergency room visits are high for children living in low-income communities with high levels of air pollution, especially those communities near sources of traffic-related pollution.  This is apparent from comparing asthma-related hospitalization rates for San Diego County to EHC target communities.

asthma map 2017

The monetary costs are high - a recent study estimated the cost was $18 million annually in just Riverside and Long Beach - but a price cannot be put on the suffering of the children and their parents.

Air pollution, mountaintop removal mining of coal, pesticides, hazardous waste dumps and polynuclear aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) from the burning of fossil fuels have all been shown to increase the risk of birth defects.  In a large study in California, air quality near homes of children born with and without birth defects was measured.  Women in areas with the highest pollution were three times more likely to have a child with a serious heart defect than women living in areas with clean air.

Where parents work matters

Toxics in their parents’ work environments may also affect children and unborn fetuses. Low-income service workers likely use toxic chemicals in occupations such as lawn and garden maintenance, hotel cleaning, and restaurant and nail salon work.

Parents should change clothes and wash before coming home if their work exposes them to any toxic substances.

Other EHC efforts to protect children from toxic exposure

Buffer zone for day care centers:  In 1991 EHC worked with San Diego County’s Hazardous Materials Management Division to define a buffer zone between day care facilities and chemical-using establishments for the City of San Diego.  

School Pesticide Use Reduction Policy:  In 1990, intent on protecting children’s health, EHC secured the adoption of a School Pesticide Use Reduction plan for the San Diego Unified School District.