Myriad chemicals measured in urban children may further health risks.

Aug 17, 2011

Sexton, K, AD Ryan, JL Adgate, DB Barr and LL Needham. 2011. BIomarker measurements of concurrent exposure to multiple environmental chemicals and chemical classes in children.  Journal of Toxicology and Environmental Health.

Synopsis by Joe Braun

Compared to other U.S. children, those living in poverty-stricken neighborhoods are exposed to higher levels of a diverse mix of environmental chemicals that may add to their already greater risk for adverse, chronic health problems.

Children from disadvantaged backgrounds are exposed to higher levels of a slew of environmental chemicals – some currently used and some long banned – than U.S. children from other socioeconomic backgrounds, finds a study of elementary school children from urban Minneapolis, Minn. 

The 7- to 12-year-olds had elevated concentrations of metals, industrial chemicals and markers for pesticides and tobacco smoke in their blood and urine. The results are published in the Journal of Toxicology and Environmental Health.

These findings agree with other studies reporting higher concentrations of environmental chemicals in children. What is important about this study is that these children were from low-income households where they face additional hardships from poverty. Children from disadvantaged backgrounds are more vulnerable to health issues, such as asthma and behavioral problems. Exposure to these chemicals may increase this risk even more.

Compared to adults, children eat more food, breathe more air, and drink more fluid than adults per unit of body mass. This increases their intake of potentially harmful chemicals and possibly raises the risk of adverse health effects related to these compounds. In addition, children’s bodies are not fully capable of detoxifying many of these chemicals so they may persist in their bodies longer.

In general, the health problems associated with exposure to the environmental chemicals found in the children may span a wide range of conditions, including cancer, behavior problems and various effects on the immune, nervous and hormonal systems. The study did not address whether the high exposures affected the children's health.

The researchers measured concentrations for more than 75 chemicals in the blood and urine of 100 children who live in two low-income, high-crime areas of urban Minneapolis. The chemicals measured included phthalates, organochlorine pesticides, organophosphate pesticides, metals, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and volatile organic compounds.

The children studied had higher concentrations of many of these chemicals compared to national surveys of children. Chemical markers indicated about a third of the kids were exposed to tobacco smoke and 10 percent of those routinely to high amounts. Other high exposures included phthalates – which are widely used to soften plastics for medical supplies and consumer packaging – and the metal lead, which still contaminates older buildings and soil.

Interestingly, they observed higher concentrations of some banned chemicals. Many of them – including PCBs and organochlorine pesticides – have been banned for decades. PCBs were widely used in electronic and industrial applications as insulators and stabilizers. Organochlorine pesticides were used to kill insects and control bug populations. Both chemical classes were banned because of their potential to adversely impact human health. However, they degrade slowly and stick around in the environment for decades after use.

Additional research will need to determine the specific sources and routes of exposures – food, air, dust – of these chemicals and whether they impact the children’s health.


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