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Children’s Environmental Health Facts

This page provides facts about the following:


  • Asthma is a common chronic disease among children in the United States.
  • In 2006, 9.9 million children under 18 years of age were reported to have ever been diagnosed with asthma; 6.8 million children had an asthmatic episode in the last 12 months.
  • The hospitalization rate for asthma remained at 27 per 10,000 children from 2002-2004.
  • Asthma is the third ranking cause of non-injury related hospitalization among children less than 15 years of age.
  • Although asthma deaths among children are rare, 195 children under 18 years of age died from asthma in 2003.

Disparities of Asthma

  • Asthma disproportionately affects children from lower-income families and children from various racial and ethnic groups.
  • African-American children have a 500% higher mortality rate from asthma as compared with Caucasian children.
  • In 2005, 13% of African-American children were reported to have asthma as compared with 9% of Hispanic children and 8% of non-Hispanic white children.
  • Larger disparities exist within the Hispanic population such that 20% of Puerto Rican children were reported to have asthma as compared with 7% of Mexican children.
  • While national level surveys suggest Asian and Pacific Islander children do not have high rates of asthma, small scale surveys however show a high prevalence of asthma among subgroups of Asian and Pacific Islander children.
    • Filipino children have an asthma prevalence of 23.8%
    • Pacific Islander children have an asthma prevalence of 21%

Economic Impact of Asthma

  • In 2002, children 5-17 years old missed 14.7 million school days due to asthma.
  • The direct and indirect costs of asthma to the U.S. economy were $19.7 billion in 2007.
    • Approximately $14.7 billion dollars are directly associated with the medical care costs of asthma
    • Approximately $5 billion are associated with lost productivity
  • Asthmatic patients and their families pay a higher portion of their medical care costs than patients with other diseases due to heavy reliance on prescription medication combined with lower insurance coverage for prescription drugs.

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Lead Exposure

  • Currently, no level of lead in blood has been identified as safe for children. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommend public health actions be initiated for children with a reference level of 5 micrograms of lead per deciliter of blood.
  • Today, elevated blood lead levels in children are due mostly to ingestion of contaminated dust, paint and soil.
  • Other sources of lead exposure include ceramics, drinking water pipes and plumbing fixtures, consumer products, batteries, gasoline, solder, ammunition, imported toys, and cosmetics.
  • In 2010, an estimated 535,000 children had a blood lead level of 5 µg/dL. The number of children affected by lead poisoning has decreased significantly from 4.7 million in 1978.
  • The decline in blood lead levels is due to the phasing out of lead in gasoline between 1973 and 1995 and the reduction in the number of homes with lead-based paint from 64 million in 1990 to 38 million in 2000. About 24 million homes still have significant lead-based paint hazards.
  • Lead exposure in young children can result in lowered intelligence, reading and learning disabilities, impaired hearing, reduced attention span, hyperactivity, delayed puberty, and reduced postnatal growth.

Disparities in Lead Exposure

  • Blood lead levels are higher for children ages 1-5 years old from lower-income families and for certain racial and ethnic groups.
  • The median blood lead level in Black non-Hispanic children ages 1-5 years old is higher than the level in White non-Hispanic children, Mexican-American children, and children of “All Other Races/Ethnicities.”
  • The median blood lead level for children living in families with incomes below poverty level is higher than for children living in families at or above poverty level.

Economic Impact of Lead Exposure

  • The cost of reduced cognitive ability is measured by IQ scores and valued in terms of forgone earnings and is estimated to be about $9,600 per IQ point lost.
  • The cost of not eliminating lead exposure to children between 2000-2010 is expected to be about $22 billion in forgone earnings.

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Childhood Cancer

  • In 2007, an estimated 10,400 new cancer cases were expected to occur among children aged 0-14 years old. An estimated 1,545 deaths from cancer were expected to occur among children in 2007.
  • Leukemia is the most common cancer in children under 15, accounting for 30 percent of all childhood cancers, followed by brain and other nervous system cancers.
  • Cancer is the second leading cause of death among children ages 1-14 years of age, with unintentional injuries being the leading cause.
  • The causes of childhood cancer are poorly understood, though different forms of cancer have different causes.  A number of studies suggest that environmental contaminants, including radiation, secondhand smoke, pesticides and solvents, may play a role in the development of childhood cancers.

Disparities in Childhood Cancer

  • Hispanic children were reported to have a higher incidence of acute lymphocytic Leukemia (ALL) than non-Hispanic white children.
  • Although national studies indicate that Asian Pacific Islander American (APIA) children overall do not have higher rates of Cancer compared to non- Hispanic whites, a smaller scale study conducted in California showed APIA children are at increased risk of developing acute non lymphocytic Leukemia (ANLL) compared with non-Hispanic white infants.

Economic Impact of Childhood Cancer

  • The total cost per case of childhood cancer was estimated to be about $623,000.

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Developmental Disabilities

  • In 2001-2004, about 7 children out of every 1,000 children were reported to be diagnosed with mental retardation.
  • Between 3-8 percent of the babies born each year will be affected by developmental disorders such as attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder or mental retardation. In 2003-2004, an estimated 300,000 U.S. children aged 4-17 years were reported to have Autism.

Disparities in Developmental Disabilities

  • Mental retardation is more common for children from lower income families and for certain racial and ethnic groups.

Economic Impact of Developmental Disabilities

  • During the 2001-2002 school year, an estimated 6.5 million children were enrolled in special education programs. This is almost 75% increase from 1976-1977.
  • The economic costs associated with autism are approximately $35 billion dollars per year.
  • Expenditures can range from 1.6 times (for students with specific learning disabilities) to 3.1 times (for students with multiple disabilities) higher than expenditures for a regular education student.

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