Susceptible Populations

Children who attend ECE programs and staff at the centers are vulnerable to the health effects of exposure to chemical or radiological hazards. Children are particularly sensitive and susceptible to exposures to chemical contaminants. Children undergo many different and rapid stages of growth and development before age five years [16]. During these stages, organ systems, including the brain and lungs, can easily be disturbed by environmental contaminants [17]. Children’s bodies might not readily repair such damage, which might affect their health now and later in life. Moreover, young children are more vulnerable because they are less likely to use health protective behavior, such as washing their hands. They also might not recognize the difference between safe and unsafe items or know to avoid unknown things or substances.

Children have a less diverse diet than do adults. Children’s proportional intake of food and drink is greater than that of adults. Because of this, any chemical contaminants, metals, natural toxins, and pesticides found in specific food and beverages are taken in at a greater proportion by infants and children. During ages 18–21 months, infants drink 10 times more water per kilogram of body weight daily than do adults [16]. In the United States, children ages one through five years eat three to five times more food per kilogram of body weight than the average adult [17].

Also, children have a faster breathing rate than adults. They also breathe air that is closer to the ground than do adults. These differences mean that children might be exposed in greater proportion to contaminants in the air that are closer to ground level. For example, if mercury is spilled on a carpet, the mercury vapor levels at the height where a toddler is breathing may be much higher than at the height at which an adult is breathing.

Finally, children and infants spend a lot of time playing on the ground where chemical contaminants can accumulate in the dust or the soil. Children’s potential for exposure to chemical contaminants is increased by their behaviors, such as crawling, mouthing hands and objects, and other hand-to-mouth behaviors [2].

Pregnant ECE workers are another susceptible population because some exposures to chemical contaminants can harm fetal development. Most ECE programs are staffed by women of child-bearing age. About 95% of child care workers are women [18]. Helping make ECE programs safer protects the children who attend the centers and unborn children of women who work at the centers.

Physiologically, children are not just small adults

  • Their rates of breathing and breathing zone are different than adults.
  • Their metabolic rates are higher relative to their size.
  • They have a larger ratio of surface area to body mass.

These and other physiological differences, combined with rapid body development, can make children more vulnerable when exposed to environmental contaminants.

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Page last reviewed: October 30, 2018