Protecting Kids from Environmental Exposure

Girl drinking out of public water fountain with text - Environmental exposure questions? Expert answers.

Children’s rapid development from before they are born through early childhood makes them more vulnerable to environmental exposures. Contact the experts at your nearest Pediatric Environmental Health Specialty Unit (PEHSU)external icon to learn how to protect your child from exposure to health hazards in the environment.

What do these situations have in common?

  • You are renovating an older home. While you are sanding window frames, some paint dust and chips fall on the floor. Your toddler puts them in his mouth.
  • You live near an abandoned old factory. Your child loves playing in the dirt—and you have caught her eating mud pies.
  • You enjoy gardening and use pesticides to protect your garden. However, you are pregnant and wonder if pesticide exposure could harm your unborn child.

If you guessed that in each situation, children are exposed to harmful substances in their environments, you are right!

Father holding baby

Children are more vulnerable to environmental exposure from the prenatal period through puberty.

Pregnant woman having blood pressure taken

Protecting a pregnant woman from environmental exposures also protects the unborn child.

Greater Exposure Risk

Children are especially vulnerable to hazards because they are growing and developing so. Children’s age-appropriate behavior (like crawling) also exposes them to hazards. They crawl and play on the floor or in the yard where they can be exposed to harmful substances—and they put everything in their mouths.

Just their physical size puts children at greater risk of exposure. From birth, children breathe more air, drink more water, and eat more food per pound of body weight than adults. An infant’s breathing rate is more than twice that of an adult’s.

Children continue to be vulnerable as they go through the developmental changes of puberty.

In 2008, the U.S. economic cost for children’s environmental exposures was estimated at $76.6 billion. But has your child’s pediatrician ever talked to you about environmental exposures? Has your obstetrician ever taken an environmental history and asked you about exposures around you?

Let’s Talk about Environmental Health

Taking an environmental exposure history (asking about potential hazards around you) is essential for health care providers to understand patients’ exposure risks and help reduce them.

Most doctors agree that counseling patients about environmental health hazards could prevent exposures. Patients can also learn to speak up about their concerns.

The good news is that environmental health experts in Pediatric Environmental Health Specialty Units (PEHSUs) throughout North America can meet these needs. PEHSUs are committed to protecting children from exposure to harmful substances from the earliest stages of development before birth and throughout childhood. Protecting a pregnant woman from environmental exposures also protects the unborn child.

PEHSUs at Work

PEHSUs have addressed children’s environmental health for over 20 years. PEHSU professionals provide consultation to doctors, nurses, parents, and childcare providers in schools and daycare facilities. They also offer professional education to physicians, nurses and nurse practitioners, physician assistants, and others in reproductive and pediatric environmental medicine and within schools of medicine and nursing.

Learn More

Many environmental exposures in children and pregnant women can be prevented—and you can learn how. Contact the PEHSU closest to you or visit regional websites or PEHSU national websites.

CDC and ATSDR also provide information on preventing environmental exposures. You can search both websites for information on specific topics, like childhood lead exposure.

Page last reviewed: October 4, 2021