Arsenic in a Child's World

Ann Pike-Paris, MS, RN


Pediatr Nurs. 2004;30(3) 

In This Article


It is key to remember that children are not merely miniature adults. Their susceptibilities vary with age and development. An infant or toddler closer to the ground will breathe or ingest toxic chemicals from floors or carpeting. They explore their world by putting everything into their mouths. Pre-schoolers play outside in the dirt and on play structures and will come in contact with toxins from lack of handwashing. Research is emerging that suggests individuals detoxify arsenic differently and that genetics may play a role (Adler, 2002). A study of Argentine children with chronic high exposure from their water supply showed they have high levels of arsenic in their urine, and the women in the village had much lower levels. The researchers suggest children are more sensitive to the toxicity than adults and do not appear to detoxify it as rapidly (Concha, Nermell, & Vahter, 1998). All of this points to prevention as key.

Where do you begin with prevention and risk reduction? Well-baby checks, annual physicals, in the schools-wherever you can access parents and children in an instructive way. The following are some points to consider covering.

  • Ask about the water supply. Is it public, private well, or bottled? Local water utilities publish annual water reports, and these are readily available. If a well is used, has it been tested for arsenic? Bottled water is tested and reports are available, too. Remember, formula mixed with water high in arsenic could be an unwitting source of exposure.

  • Inquire about play habits. Do children routinely play outside in the dirt? Do they eat it? Limit contact with the dirt in known areas of exposure such as near incinerators, smelters, and power plants, and urge good handwashing.

  • Do children frequent CCA-treated decks, playgrounds, or docks? Many localities are currently removing large pressure treated play structures and testing soil for arsenic concentrations. If this is happening in your area, you can suggest alternatives for building such as cedar, redwood, or plastic. Two Web sites give suggestions on how to seal CCA-treated wood and can help you with communicating the risks effectively: the Massachusetts Department of Public Health Web site ( and Beyond Pesticides/National Coalition Against the Misuse of Pesticides (NCAMP) Web site ( The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) has excellent resources about play sets, the potential health risks, both short- and long-term, and can be accessed at

  • Educate families about lowering risk with existing CCA wood structures. If parents are building with it, they should use a dust mask and gloves, minimize spreading sawdust, and be responsible about disposing of waste. Discourage children from playing under a deck and cover surfaces like picnic tables to prevent contact. Urge parents to call their local municipal authorities to find out how to appropriately dispose of unwanted wood. CCA-treated wood should never be burned.

  • Caution parents about pesticides that might still be lurking in an old garage or barn. Encourage them to store these safely or call the local municipality for instructions about appropriate disposal.


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