Why Children Are More Sensitive to Environmental Health Risks

When you think of green cleaning, what’s the first benefit or goal that comes to mind? For many people, green cleaning is primarily associated with its environmental benefits. But those who have been implementing successful green cleaning in schools across the nation will tell you that among the most important benefits of green cleaning is also human health. Human health is preserved and even improved by implementing green cleaning practices that reduce exposures to harsh chemicals, allergens and dust. When this is considered in conjunction with children’s increased sensitivities to environmental risks, the case for a green cleaning program is strengthened.

We recently spoke with Maryann Suero, an environmental health scientist with US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Region 5, about the health benefits of green cleaning and the particular weight this carries for schools and children. Suero works in the children’s health program offices and provides technical assistance and support for those who want to create healthier schools in her region, which encompasses Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio and Wisconsin.

The EPA’s emphasis on children’s health started with a 1997 executive order to protect children from environmental health and safety risks. This important work is rooted in the fact that children are more susceptible to environmental risks than adults, and therefore need more protection.

To help us better understand the reasons for children’s sensitivities, we asked Suero for a brief biology lesson. She laid out the following reasons:

  1. Children are developing. This means their bodies are constantly laying down new cells, especially brain and bone cells. Suero is quick to point out that there are “windows of susceptibility,” meaning developmental periods when children are creating cells even quicker, during fetal development and puberty.
  2. Their bodies are immature. Adult bodies see a chemical and can recognize the danger it presents because our excretion systems are able to marshall that chemical out of our bodies quickly. “Those chemicals are in children’s bodies for a longer time and have more opportunity to interact with their developing system,” says Suero.
  3. Exposure is bigger for children. Pound for pound, children breathe more and eat more food than adults do. “When you talk about a chemical’s risk, it’s not just a function of the chemical but it’s also a function of the exposure,” notes Suero.
  4. Children have different activities and behaviors. While it’s not common for adults to roll around on the floor in their workplaces, that is an expected behavior for kids. Children also commonly put their hands—and other classroom objects—in their mouths.

As Suero puts it: “Children are not little adults.” There’s a lot at stake when you take into account how sensitive young, growing bodies are. This information doesn’t only pertain to elementary aged students, either. At the EPA, everyone is considered a child until at least the age of 18, and sometimes 21.

When it comes to green cleaning in schools, the biological sensitivities of children at all ages should be a primary factor in making decisions, advocating for change and sharing the responsibility. In other words, there’s a message here that can help you sell your green cleaning program and should also motivate your school to do right by its youngest occupants.

To find more compelling reasons behind green cleaning or learn more about the specifics of green cleaning in schools, visit our Resources Section.