Environmental Illness in Children

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Environmental Illness in Children

Topic Overview

Children are more vulnerable than adults to environmental illnesses for many reasons. They are growing and developing, and they have higher rates of cell production, less-developed metabolisms, and a higher relative level of exposure. Children in urban areas are most affected by environmental illnesses. The prevalence and number of deaths from asthma is highest among poor urban children. Because of their exposure to pollutants, allergens, cigarette smoke, pesticides, lead, and toxins in our environment, research shows that children may be increasingly affected by:

  • Asthma. Asthma is most common during childhood. About 12 out of every 100 Canadian children have this disease. Asthma is the leading reason children miss school.1
  • Childhood cancer. About 850 Canadian children are diagnosed with cancer each year. The childhood cancer rate has stayed the same since 1989. Leukemias and central nervous system tumours are the most common types of cancer in children.2
  • Low birth weight. Low birth weight may increase the risk for some problems in adulthood, such as high blood pressure, diabetes, and heart disease.
  • Developmental disorders. Some developmental disabilities can be caused by exposure to toxic chemicals before or after birth.

Some environmental factors affecting children's health include:

  • Air pollution. Air pollutants found indoors and outdoors may harm the lungs of children and lead to breathing problems, such as asthma. Some substances that might cause problems include pesticides, volatile organic compounds (VOC), and ozone.3
  • Lead. Experts estimate that 1 out of 20 children in Canada and the United States has elevated levels of lead in his or her blood, which can cause developmental problems. The most common sources of lead are lead-based paint, dust, toy jewellery, and some imported toys.4, 5, 6 Health Canada and the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) have found high lead content in many children’s toys and jewellery made in other countries. For a list of recalled products, see Health Canada's Consumer Product Safety Web site at www.hc-sc.gc.ca/cps-spc/index-eng.php.
  • Pesticides. Children can get exposed to pesticides in food, from products used in the house or on yards or parks, and in water. Problems that can be caused by pesticide exposure include skin rashes, nerve damage, and cancer.

Evaluate your home and your child's school for toxic chemicals and other hazards

Parents may be concerned that their children are being exposed to environmental hazards at home and in school. Think about the following questions and talk to your family doctor or pediatrician if you are worried your child may be at risk for environmental illnesses:

  • What is the condition of your home? Is there peeling leaded paint or mould growth from water damage?
  • Are you renovating your home? This could cause exposure to lead paint or other toxic substances.
  • How do you heat your home? Are your heating sources properly maintained and vented? Do you use a fireplace or woodstove? Do you use a gas stove for cooking?
  • Do you have carbon monoxide and smoke detectors?
  • Do you use pesticides inside or around your home?
  • Do you use glues or paints, solvents, or other chemicals for hobby activities or crafts?
  • Do you possibly bring home toxic substances on your clothes or shoes from your workplace?
  • Are there renovations in progress at your children's schools? Does your child have symptoms that get worse or better at school?
  • Do you live near a chemical plant or hazardous waste site? Have there been any chemical leaks in your area lately?
  • Do you smoke in your home, car, or elsewhere around your children? Do other family members smoke?

Related Information



  1. Asthma Society of Canada. Asthma facts and statistics, 2005. Available online: http://asthma.ca/corp/newsroom/pdf/asthmastats.pdf
  2. Ellison LF, et al. (2009). Canadian cancer statistics at a glance: Cancer in children. Canadian Medical Association Journal, 180(4): 422–424.
  3. Woodruff TJ, et al. (2004). Trends in environmentally related childhood illnesses. Pediatrics, 113(4): 1133–1140.
  4. Sanborn MD, et al. (2002). Identifying and managing adverse environmental health effects: 3. Lead exposure. Canadian Medical Association Journal, 166(10): 1287–1292.
  5. American Academy of Pediatrics (2005). Lead poisoning from a toy necklace. Pediatrics, 116(4): 1050–1051.
  6. American Academy of Pediatrics (2005). The need for vigilance: The persistence of lead poisoning in children. Pediatrics, 115(6): 1767–1768.


By Healthwise Staff
Primary Medical Reviewer Kathleen Romito, MD - Family Medicine
Specialist Medical Reviewer Peter Rabinowitz, MD, MPH - Occupational and Environmental Medicine
Specialist Medical Reviewer Andrew Swan, MD, CCFP, FCFP - Family Medicine
Last Revised January 28, 2010

This information does not replace the advice of a doctor. Healthwise, Incorporated disclaims any warranty or liability for your use of this information.