We are, as the old adage maintains, a product of both nurture and nature. While part of health and development is structured by social conditions, environmental factors also affect the growing child in physical, psychological and social terms. While multiple environmental exposures affect childhood growth, research conducted by the Center for Children's Environmental Health at Columbia University suggests that certain factors are more influential than others.
Air pollution affects childhood growth by creating respiratory problems and contributing to asthma. As the Center for Children's Environmental Health points out, children in the womb are especially vulnerable to air quality, as it directly affects fetal development. Air pollution exists not only in the outdoor environment, but also in homes and schools in the form of poor ventilation, fumes from cooking, and second-hand smoke.
Research provides overwhelming evidence for the harms of second-hand smoke on the growing child. Second-hand smoke contributes to respiratory problems, such as coughing and wheezing, depletes the immune system, and potentially limits the availability of fresh oxygen which children require in order to grow. Additionally, children born to mothers who smoke suffer a higher risk of health problems and are generally not as healthy as babies born to mothers who do not smoke.
The Center for Children's Environmental health asserts that "there is no safe level of lead." For children, even a small exposure can have devastating health consequences, such as speech delay, hearing loss, brain damage and lowered IQ. Although lead paint has been legally restricted from home use since 1978, it is still found in many older buildings. Additionally, pipes carrying drinking water were commonly made of lead through the 1980s, and thus in older facilities lead contamination remains an environmental risk.
Chemical pesticides are a major feature of modern agriculture that have numerous adverse effects on health. For children, pesticides negatively affect growth and development in the form of direct contact, air pollution from sprays, and most commonly through food. Pesticide exposure has been linked to poor motor coordination and delays in cognitive development.
Children come into contact with mould through breathing spores in the environment, touching surfaces covered with mould, or eating mouldy foods. In the home environment, most moulds are preventable, though sometimes they are a result of poor maintained or older constructions. Molds can cause skin rashes and allergies, provoke asthma and also lead to the development of chronic fatigue syndrome.
While certain environmental exposures have a harmful effect on the growing child, other factors benefit development. The Children's Environments Research Group promotes healthy childhood outdoor play in environmentally safe spaces. While air pollution can harm a vulnerable body in development, access to clean natural areas can promote growth, stimulate cognitive development and enhance motor skills.