Environmental Illness in Children

Skip to the navigation

Topic Overview

Children are more likely than adults to get an environmental illness , because they are still developing. Also, some ways that children behave, such as crawling and putting things in their mouths, can expose them to dangerous substances. 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. In the past 15 years, the number of children with asthma has more than doubled. Now, more than 7 million children younger than 18 have this disease. footnote 1 Each year asthma accounts for about 14 million missed school days. footnote 2
  • Childhood cancer. From 1975 to 1990, the number of children with cancer increased, but the childhood cancer rate has stayed the same since 1990. Leukemias and central nervous system tumors are the most common types of cancer in children. footnote 2
  • Developmental disorders. Some developmental disabilities in children can be caused by infections or 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 (VOCs), and ozone. footnote 2
  • Lead. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that 1 out of 20 children in 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 jewelry, and some imported toys. In 2007, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) found high lead content in many children's toys and jewelry made in other countries. For a complete list of recalled products, see the CPSC website at www.cpsc.gov.
  • Pesticides. There are more than 1,055 substances used as pesticides in the U.S. footnote 3 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. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that children have as little exposure to pesticides as possible. footnote 4

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 child's doctor 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 mold 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 hobbies 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?



  1. Akinbami LK, et al. (2011). Asthma prevalence, health care use, and mortality: United States, 2005-2009. National Health Statistics Reports, 32: 1-16.
  2. Woodruff TJ, et al. (2004). Trends in environmentally related childhood illnesses. Pediatrics, 113(4): 1133-1140.
  3. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (2007). Assessing health risks from pesticides. Available online: http://www.epa.gov/pesticides/factsheets/riskassess.htm.
  4. Council on Environmental Health (2012). Pesticide exposure in children. Pediatrics, 130(6): e1757-e1763. Available online: http://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/130/6/e1757.full. [Erratum in Pediatrics, 131(5): 1013. Also available online: http://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/131/5/1013.3.full.]

Other Works Consulted

  • American Academy of Pediatrics (2005). Lead poisoning from a toy necklace. Pediatrics, 116(4): 1050-1051.
  • American Academy of Pediatrics (2005). The need for vigilance: The persistence of lead poisoning in children. Pediatrics, 115(6): 1767-1768.


ByHealthwise Staff

Primary Medical Reviewer Kathleen Romito, MD - Family Medicine

Adam Husney, MD - Family Medicine

Specialist Medical Reviewer Martin J. Gabica, MD - Family Medicine

Current as ofMay 7, 2017