Hot topics in environmental health

July 1, 2009

The dangers of phthlates, mercury, bisphenol a, and lead are examined, giving practitioners the background to pass on wise safety tips to their patients and parents.

Alarming news reports over the potentially toxic, and even lethal, effects of environmental exposures in childhood have parents scrambling for sound guidance.

What should you advise?

Susceptible to exposure

There are many reasons why children are often more vulnerable to environmental chemicals compared to adults. With faster baseline respiratory rates and higher amounts per body weight of food and drink consumed, children breathe, eat, and drink more of any given contaminant than adults in the same situation. A child's unique dietary preferences, for example, may lead him/her to consume large quantities of apples (as apple juice, applesauce, or sliced apples), hence the potential risk of exposure to pesticides used on these crops.

Trouble in Toyland

In 2007, news stories widely reported that lead levels exceeding federal standards (>600 parts per million [ppm]) were found in imported toys and other objects intended for children. These products included painted trains and dolls, plastic lunch boxes, and costume jewelry. Research has shown that even small amounts of lead in a child's system (<10 micrograms per deciliter of blood) can be harmful.5

Lead is added to plastics, such as vinyl, to meet manufacturers' preference for pliability and strength, or as a catalyst in certain manufacturing processes. It is also used as filler or in solder in costume jewelry and pendants, which children might mouth. If ingested, the extremely high lead content of some costume jewelry can cause overt lead poisoning and possibly death.6

In all, the US Consumer Products Safety Commission (CPSC), the federal agency that regulates children's toys and products, issued more than 29 separate product recalls during the 2007 calendar year; more than 175 million pieces of toy jewelry were recalled because of excessive lead content. These recalls illustrated the imperfect system of monitoring the safety of toys and other products meant for children.