Children's Environmental Health
Chemicals of Special Concern
to Children's Health

On this page:
Volatile organic compounds (VOCs)
Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs)
Bisphenol A

Numerous chemical substances are present in our environment; they may be found in the air we breathe, the water we use for drinking and bathing, in our food, and in consumer products. Children as a group are considered to be more sensitive to chemicals in the environment than the general population due to a variety of factors, including differences in physiology and a higher rate of food and water intake per pound of body weight. For more information about why children represent a key area of concern in the field of environmental health, see MDH's Children's Environmental Health Background Page.

Certain classes of chemicals have attracted attention from the scientific community, as well as from the media and the general public, for their potential impact on the health of children. These include pesticides, volatile organic compounds (VOCs), polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), metals such as arsenic, mercury, lead, and cadmium, and endocrine disruptors, such as bisphenol A. The chemicals described on this page are not intended to be an exhaustive list, but include chemicals that have attracted increased public attention recently due to concerns about children's exposure. The term "special concern," therefore, is intended to indicate chemicals that have attracted public and media interest, and not necessarily higher toxicity, greater hazard to public health, or priority for regulation by the state. A more extensive list of chemicals found in Minnesota's environment, as well as information about their potential health risks and how to avoid them, may be found on MDH's Chemicals and Hazards Web page.

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What are pesticides?

Pesticides are chemicals used to control unwanted insects, rodents, weeds, plant disease, and other pests. Pest control plays an important role in preventing disease and maintaining an abundant global food supply. Pesticides are used routinely both indoors and outdoors, in commercial and residential settings. Pesticide products include sprays, powders, baits, and traps. While insecticides, insect repellents, and weed killers are commonly recognized as pesticides, other products such as disinfectants and pet shampoos are also considered pesticides.

How can pesticides affect children's health?

Pesticides are a diverse group of chemicals, and exposure can cause a variety of harmful effects. Whether there will be any effect and, if so, the type of effect, depends not only on the particular pesticide and the amount taken into the body, but also on the frequency and duration of the contact. Other factors that may play a role in determining the outcome of an exposure are the age and general health of the person exposed and whether the pesticide is ingested, inhaled, or absorbed through the skin.

Insecticides primarily affect the nervous system. Some symptoms associated with high, short-term exposures to insecticides include headaches, blurred vision, salivation, dizziness, nausea and vomiting, abdominal cramps, slow pulse, diarrhea, confusion, and weakness. Very high exposures can cause paralysis, tremors or convulsions, loss of consciousness, and death. Effects of lower but longer lasting exposures are more subtle. Pesticides may also affect other organs, such as the liver and the kidneys, or they may affect development or cause cancer.

How might children be exposed to pesticides?

While pesticide poisoning could affect workers who apply pesticides or result from accidents in the home, most people are not exposed to the high levels associated with poisoning. People may be exposed to low levels of pesticides on a daily basis as a result of regular or occasional use of pesticides. Sunlight, water, and temperature all affect how fast a pesticide degrades or breaks down into less harmful substances. While some pesticides degrade quickly, certain pesticides persist in the environment for long periods of time.

Exposure may be the result of indoor or outdoor application of pesticides to the immediate premises, such as a private or public building. If a person enters a recently treated area, exposure may occur by breathing air that contains pesticides, by eating foods on which pesticides have settled, by breathing or swallowing soil or dust particles to which pesticides have adhered, or through contact with dust or surfaces where pesticides have settled.

Exposure may also result from application at a remote site, such as an agricultural field, a water body, or an area considered a breeding ground for insects that spread disease. In order for human exposure to result from a remote application, a person must come into contact with the pesticide before it has degraded. Contact to persons remote from the site of application may occur if the pesticide enters the food supply, surface water, groundwater, or air. Pesticides enter the food supply when crops are treated with pesticides. Some persistent pesticides tend to accumulate in the fatty tissues of fish, poultry, cattle, and other food animals. Most persistent pesticides (e.g., DDT) have been banned from use in the United States; however, some continue to be used in other areas of the world.

How can I reduce my child's exposure to pesticides?

  • Reduce the need to use chemical pesticides. Prevent pests from entering a building by closing or sealing openings. Eliminate sources of food and moisture so that the environment is not conducive to pests. Use physical means to control pests, such as fly swatters, whenever possible.
  • If you use pesticide products at home or elsewhere: (1) use products such as horticultural oils and diatomaceous earth or non-broadcast products such as baits or traps; (2) read and follow all label instructions, including instructions regarding the proper purpose of the pesticide product, the location for application, the quantity to be applied, the frequency of application, the method of application, and the time-delay prior to reentry of treated areas; and (3) remove food, dishes, toys, and other objects before treating indoors.
  • Wash fruits and vegetables thoroughly before eating them.
  • Avoid treated areas during and after treatment.
  • Remove shoes at the door so that soil and dust are not tracked into the house.
  • Ensure that pesticide products are stored in safe containers and in places where children do not have access to them.

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Volatile Organic Chemicals

What are volatile organic chemicals?

Volatile organic chemicals (VOCs) are a group of chemicals that easily evaporate and have a sweet odor commonly associated with paints and glues. They are found in second-hand smoke, fuels, oils, automobile exhaust, industrial solvents, and a wide variety of consumer products. They are commonly found at low levels in homes and in the environment, including the air (indoor and outdoor), water, soil, dust, and food. Most VOCs do not last in the environment for very long because they are readily broken down by microorganisms and sunlight.

How can VOCs affect children's health?

The ability of VOCs to cause health effects varies greatly depending on the chemical. As with other pollutants, the extent and nature of the health effect also depends on other factors, including the level of exposure and the length of time exposed.

Some symptoms associated with high VOC exposures are eye and respiratory tract irritation, headaches, dizziness, visual disorders, and impaired memory. These symptoms usually pass a short time after the exposure has ended and have no long-term effects. Long-term exposures to high levels of some VOCs, such as benzene, have been shown to cause cancer. Other effects from long-term exposures to high levels of VOCs include damage to the nervous system, the kidney, and the liver. Health effects from low-level exposures to VOCs are generally unknown.

How might children be exposed to VOCs?

Most people are exposed to low levels of VOCs on a daily basis. Exposure may occur through breathing, eating and drinking, and through direct skin contact. Individuals who work in occupations that make or use VOCs, such as petroleum or rubber industries, may be exposed to the highest levels. Second hand-smoke and a variety of consumer products, such as glues, paints, and adhesives, contribute to VOC exposures in the home. In addition, VOCs in gasoline vapors and auto exhaust may enter a home from an attached garage. Studies conducted by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency have shown that the levels of VOCs inside homes are often two to five times higher than they are outside homes.

Benzene is one VOC that is commonly present in indoor and outdoor air. Major sources of benzene exposure are secondhand smoke, gasoline fumes, and automobile exhaust.

How can I reduce my child's exposure to VOCs?

Indoor VOC concentrations and resulting exposures may vary significantly depending on the level of ventilation in your home and the activities in your home, such as smoking, remodeling, or painting. You can reduce VOCs in your home and your child's exposures by following these steps:

  • If you smoke, smoke outdoors and in areas away from children. Avoid areas where your child may be exposed to secondhand smoke.
  • Keep your child away from stored gasoline, especially enclosed areas. Don't allow your child to be exposed to gasoline vapors that are typically given off during refueling.
  • Do not allow your car to idle in the garage even if the garage door is open, and turn your car off immediately upon entering the garage.
  • Follow ventilation and location instructions on product labels for paints, varnishes, strippers, glues, and hobby products.
  • Perform painting, remodeling, carpet replacement, and refinishing projects during the summer months. Open windows to ventilate the work area.
  • Avoid storing VOC containing products, such as paints, paint strippers, kerosene for space heaters, or gasoline for lawn mowers, by buying only as much as you will use right away.
  • Store VOC containing products outside the home, and away from the furnace and other combustion appliances.
  • Check the label when buying paints and other products likely to contain VOCs. Buy products with low VOC content (where available). If you cannot read the label or there is no information available, contact the manufacturer.

More information on VOCs is available on MDH's Volatile Organic Chemicals in Private Drinking Water Wells Web page.

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Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons

What are polycyclic aromatic hyrdocarbons?

Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) are a group of chemicals formed by incomplete combustion of organic materials, such as fossil fuels, municipal and industrial waste, wood, tobacco, and meat. Large quantities of PAHs are released during such natural events as volcanic eruptions and forest fires. However, many human activities, such as burning coal, oil, and wood for heat and gas-powered motor travel, also release PAHs into the environment. Grilling food and smoking also create PAHs, albeit in smaller quantities. PAHs are found in asphalt, creosote, coal tar pitch, roofing tar, coal, and crude oil. A few PAHs are used in medicines, plastics, dyes, and pesticides. PAHs generally occur as complex mixtures of chemicals.

How can PAHs affect children's health?

Of the more than 100 chemicals classified as PAHs, only a few have been subject to intensive scientific study. While it is difficult to generalize about this broad range of chemicals, it is certain that some PAHs, either individually or in mixtures with others, can cause adverse health effects. Whether other PAHs may have any impact on health and, if so, the nature of that impact, is largely unknown.

Some PAHs have the ability to cause cellular mutations and are considered carcinogenic. Inhalation of high levels of PAHs in occupational settings has been shown to cause respiratory effects and immune system depression in humans. Mixtures of PAHs can cause skin disorders in humans. In laboratory studies, some PAHs have also been shown to cause developmental effects and changes in kidney and liver functioning. While these effects have not been reported for humans, it is safest to assume that some adverse effects may be possible and to try to reduce exposures. As with exposure to any chemical, health effects resulting from exposure to PAHs will depend on the duration and frequency of exposure, as well as the quantity of the PAH present, and whether exposure occurs by inhalation, ingestion, or dermal contact.

Benzo(a)pyrene is one PAH which has been studied extensively. This PAH is considered a potent carcinogen, meaning low doses may cause cancer. The toxicities of other, less potent, PAHs are commonly evaluated relative to benzo(a)pyrene.

How might children be exposed to PAHs?

Many natural events and human activities produce PAHs. Consequently, PAHs are found throughout the environment in water, soil, and air. Exposure is most likely to result from PAHs present in air, either as vapors or attached to dust or other particles. Although PAHs can travel long distances in the environment, concentrations of PAHs in air will be higher near PAH sources, such as areas of traffic congestion, waste incineration, asphalt roads, and residential wood burning. In the home, sources of exposure are secondhand smoke, wood fire smoke, and food. While many foods typically contain low levels of PAHs, foods that have been grilled, charred, or otherwise cooked at high temperatures contain higher levels of PAHs. Generally, exposure will be to a mixture of PAHs rather than to a single PAH.

How can I reduce my child's exposure to PAHs?

Since PAHs are found throughout the environment, it is difficult to avoid exposure. However, you can significantly reduce your child's exposure by avoiding certain areas and by modifying some home and recreational activities. The following are practical and easy steps you can follow to reduce PAH exposure.

  • Avoid smoke from wood fires, whether from home heating or for recreational purposes.
  • Avoid exposure to automobile exhaust and areas of high traffic congestion.
  • Avoid areas where asphalt road construction or tar roofing is occurring.
  • If you smoke, smoke outdoors and in areas away from children. Avoid areas where your child may be exposed to secondhand smoke.
  • Prepare foods by slower cooking over low heat, rather than by charring or grilling food.
  • Avoid skin contact with soot.

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Arsenic, Mercury, Lead, Cadmium

What are arsenic, mercury, lead, and cadmium?

Arsenic, mercury, lead, and cadmium are metals that occur naturally in soil, water, air, and dust. Since these compounds do not have any smell, it is difficult to tell when they are present. In the environment, arsenic, mercury, lead, and cadmium are usually found combined with other elements. The toxicity of these metals and their fate in the environment is determined by the complexes they form with these elements.

Arsenic compounds are common in soil and in rock, particularly ores. Most arsenic compounds can dissolve in water and, therefore, arsenic may occur in groundwater. Arsenic also may be released into the air as dust from soil or from the smelting of ores or burning of waste, such as arsenic-treated lumber. The principal commercial use of arsenic is as a wood preservative. The only other significant commercial use of arsenic is as a component of agricultural pesticides.

Mercury is present in coal and petroleum products and is released into the atmosphere by burning of fossil fuels, such as gasoline, coal, and oil. Mercury travels long distances in air and is deposited in lakes where it accumulates in fish as methylmercury. Metallic mercury is used in thermometers, dental fillings, batteries, and in some skin-lightening creams.

Lead is found in the natural environment and in the past was added to many products, including paint. Humans are exposed to lead occupationally and from the environment as a result of mining, manufacturing, and burning of fossil fuels. Lead also is commonly found in house dust, especially in older homes (homes built before 1970) where lead-based paint was used.

Cadmium is used in batteries, metal plating, and fungicides; as an absorbent in nuclear reactors; and in the production of plastics and pigments. Cadmium is present in air as a result of burning of fossil fuels or municipal waste. Metal smelting operations or soldering may also release cadmium into the air. Mining activities, and industrial and hazardous wastes may contaminate groundwater with cadmium. Levels of cadmium in soil may be increased by the use of sewage sludge or fertilizers contaminated with cadmium.

How can arsenic, mercury, lead, and cadmium affect children's health?

The presence of arsenic, mercury, lead, and cadmium in the environments of young children is of particular concern: first, because children's behavior is more likely to result in exposure and, second, because these metals affect the nervous system and, particularly, the nervous system as it is developing. The potential for harmful effects from these metals depends on many factors, including the amount of the exposure, how long exposure continues, and how contact occurs. Other factors include age, sex, diet, family traits, lifestyle, and state of health.

Some symptoms associated with high mercury and lead exposures are tremors, memory problems, and changes in vision or hearing. High mercury exposures may affect a developing fetus and cause premature births, low birth weights, decreased mental ability, or reduced growth.

Symptoms associated with high inorganic arsenic exposures are nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, abnormal heart rhythm, and a "pins and needles" sensation in hands and feet. Long term exposure to inorganic arsenic may cause cancer, and the appearance of small "corns" or "warts" on the palms, soles of the feet, and torso.

Cadmium primarily affects the kidneys and the skeletal system. Over a lifetime, most people are exposed to low levels of cadmium with no observed ill effects. However, cadmium accumulates in the body, and high exposures over time can cause bone pain, fractures, and kidney failure.

Some people are at greater risk from exposure to metals than others. People living in houses built prior to 1970 are more likely to be exposed to lead paint and dust. Also, people who eat fish frequently or eat highly contaminated fish may be exposed to high levels of methylmercury.

How might children be exposed to arsenic, mercury, lead, and cadmium?

Most people are exposed to low levels of arsenic, mercury, lead, and cadmium on a daily basis because these metals are naturally found in the environment. Exposure may occur through breathing, eating and drinking, and incidental ingestion (i.e., eating lead-based paint chips, dust). Secondhand smoke contains arsenic and cadmium and may contribute to exposure. Arsenic may also naturally occur in drinking water. Lead, too, may be present in drinking water, as a result of lead pipes or lead solder. The most common source of cadmium exposure is food. Grains and leafy vegetables absorb cadmium from contaminated soil or water. Cadmium, methylmercury, and arsenic all tend to bioaccumulate in the food chain, so that certain foods, such as fish or shellfish, may contain these metals. Mercury is an alloy in dental fillings and may be released from fillings. Lead may be present in dust, especially house dust, as a result of the use of lead-based paint. Young children who exhibit extensive hand-to-mouth activity are more likely than adults to be exposed to metals in dust and soil.

How can I protect my child from exposure to arsenic, mercury, lead, and cadmium?

  • Dust areas in your home regularly. Wet wash window wells, sills, and floors.
  • If you smoke, smoke outdoors and in areas away from children. Avoid areas where your child may be exposed to secondhand smoke.
  • Wash your child's hands with soap and water before eating, naps, and bedtime.
  • Wash bottles, teething rings, and toys with soap and water.
  • Don't let your child eat or chew on anything that may have lead paint on it. Look for teeth marks on the woodwork in your home.
  • Take your shoes off at the door so that soil and dust are not tracked into the house.
  • Make sure that your child has a balanced diet that includes enough calcium, iron, protein, and zinc. Nutritional deficiencies can increase the absorption and the effects of exposure to harmful metals.
  • Use care when handling and disposing of thermometers, batteries, and other consumer products that contain mercury, cadmium, or lead.
  • If you have hobbies that involve welding, soldering, or ceramic or glass glazing, perform them outside the home or in a well-ventilated area away from children.
  • Adults working in jobs where metals are used should shower and change clothes and shoes before coming home. This includes painters, remodelers, and workers in smelters, battery plants, radiator, or auto body shops.

More information on mercury may be found on MDH's Mercury In Schools Web page.

MDH's "Let It Run...and get the lead out!" has advice on reducing lead exposure from tap water. Additional information is available on at MDH's Lead Poisoning Prevention website.

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Bisphenol A

What is bisphenol A?

Bisphenol A (or BPA) is a chemical commonly used in polycarbonate plastics, which are rigid, impact-resistant plastics used in industry and consumer products. BPA is used in hard plastic beverage bottles, sports equipment, medical devices, and compact discs. BPA is also part of the material used to coat the inside walls of some food cans and water supply pipes. Studies have shown that BPA may leach from plastics into foods and liquids.

How can bisphenol A affect children's health?

BPA is one of many chemicals that can disrupt the endocrine system by acting like a hormone or changing the way hormones act. The endocrine system controls many functions within the body. Studies with animals have shown that high doses of BPA may affect sperm count, fetal development, and obesity. Federal agencies have investigated concerns about BPA, including current research into the chemical's toxicity and the ways in which human beings can be exposed. Scientists generally agree that some of the findings in animals could also happen in humans (that is, effects on reproduction and normal sexual development) at high doses. But there is considerable uncertainty as to whether these effects occur at the low doses to which humans are exposed.

How might children be exposed to bisphenol A?

BPA exposure is most likely to occur from eating and drinking food and water that has been stored for extended periods of time in materials made from BPA. Resins containing BPA are approved by the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for lining food cans, and small amounts of BPA have been found in canned infant formula (both powdered and liquid) and canned foods. Studies show that BPA moves from heated and damaged plastic bottles into water or infant formula. Measurable levels of BPA have not been found in public drinking water. Exposure may also occur from the environment; BPA is commonly detected at low concentrations in both indoor and outdoor air, in surface water, and in house dust. BPA is also used in resins that are used in dentistry. However, researchers have found that the exposure from dental resins is very low compared to long-term exposures from food and water containers and the environment as a whole.

How can I reduce my child's exposure to bisphenol A?

Choose baby bottles, water bottles, children’s cups, and drinking glasses made from glass or from plastics that do not contain BPA. There are several brands of BPA-free bottles and cups available at retailers throughout the state, or on the Internet. A new law enacted in Minnesota in 2009 will ban the retail sale of bottles and cups containing BPA after January 1, 2011. Until that date, bottles and cups containing BPA will still be available at many retailers. Some retailers began to phase out these products even before the law was enacted.

When choosing a bottle or cup for your child, it is important to be aware that the number imprinted on the bottom of a plastic container for recycling purposes may not be a reliable way to determine whether the container is made from plastics containing BPA. Plastics containing BPA will normally have a recycling code number of 7, but not all #7 plastic contains BPA. This is because the Plastic Identification Code #7 accounts for “other plastics” that do not fall under codes 1 through 6. You may need to contact the manufacturer to be certain about the makeup of your bottles (look for a toll-free number on the package).

If you choose to use polycarbonate plastic bottles, there are some steps that you can take to reduce potential exposure to BPA.

  • Treat plastics with care. Bottles that show significant signs of wear—scratched and cloudy surfaces—may release more BPA than an undamaged container.
  • Heat and harsh detergents may damage the surface of plastics and result in greater release of BPA. Wash plastics by hand rather than in a dishwasher and do not use brushes that could scratch the surface. Heat may be used to sterilize a bottle, but the sterilized bottle should be allowed to cool and dry before use.
  • Minimize the amount of time that formula or water is stored in plastic containers before use.
  • Heat formula or milk in a pan on the stove or in a glass or ceramic container in the microwave before pouring into a bottle for an infant.

While BPA has been detected in breast milk, there is no indication that this exposure would harm a nursing infant. However, a nursing mother who wishes to reduce her infant’s exposure to BPA should reduce her own exposure by avoiding hard plastic food containers and other food packaging containing BPA. MDH does NOT recommend giving up breastfeeding out of concern for BPA because breastfeeding provides numerous nutritional and health benefits.

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Updated Tuesday, 10-Sep-2013 11:40:11 CDT