Food Contaminants Found in the Modern American Diets of Children and their Effects on Child Health

Attention all parents and guardians!  Caretakers of America’s youth play a significant role in determining the future health of this nation. It has become increasingly important to recognize the public health threats posed by microbes, synthetic toxins, hormones, and synthetic compounds utilized in American farm and animal agriculture, food production, and packaging today.  The susceptibility of children to exposures to food contaminants has become one of the most pressing public health issues of today.


The potential for adverse health effects in infants and children is especially paramount since organ development occurs most rapidly within the first months and years of life.  A child’s developing nervous system is especially vulnerable as it is less capable of repairing any structural damage caused by toxins in the environment. There are substantial qualitative differences in the capacity for the absorption, metabolism, detoxification, and excretion between children and adults as size, weight, body composition, and physiological functioning all affect pharmacokinetic and pharmacodynamic processes (Alcorn & McManara, 2003)( Jacob, Krishnan, & Venkatesan, 2004).  Infants and children generally absorb and metabolize at a more rapid rate and are less able to detoxify and excrete synthetic compounds due to the immaturity of the kidneys and liver (World Health Organization, 2007).  The manifestation of latent diseases such as cancer, neurodevelopmental impairment, and immune dysfunction is a special concern as many environmentally related diseases develop over prolonged periods of time.  Exposures in childhood may contribute to the presence of disease well into adulthood.


While scientific and technological developments in the agricultural sector have increased rates of food production over the past five decades, the application of agrochemicals such as pesticides has stimulated public health concerns.  Increased pest resistance has led to the emergence of more toxic, ecologically hazardous pesticides, rising operational costs, and higher volumes of overall pesticide usage (Pimentel, 2004).  According to the CDC, approximately 40 organophosphorous insecticides are registered for use in the United States by the EPA and an estimated 73 million pounds (70% of all insecticides) were used in 2001 (2011).  The application of organophosphates, organochlorines, and carbamates by conventional agricultural operations leaves substantial pesticide residues on the produce that children frequently consume.  Dietary risks compound with those of the environment through increased contact with the floor, lawns, and outdoor playing fields.  Despite a long history of pesticide use, the potential for acute and subchronic neurotoxicity, developmental neurotoxicity, and endocrine disfunction still requires systematic review.  The National Cancer Institute has documented an increase in the incidence of all forms of invasive cancer among children over the past 20 years, from 11.5 cases per 100,000 in 1975 to 14.8 per 100,000 in 2004 (2008).  The association of cancer with pesticide residues on food has resulted in a hotbed of controversy among farmers, consumers, scientists, health practitioners, and legislators. 


The infiltration of foodborne microbial pathogens poses a plethora of public health challenges to the agricultural, food production, food service, and medical industries.  Antimicrobials such as amoxicillin, ampicillin, erythromycin, neomycin, penicillin, and tetracycline are added to the water and feeds of livestock in “subtherapeutic” levels to promote faster growth and reduce disease-driven losses (Goforth & Goforth, 2000).  Over time, microbes in livestock can become antibiotic-resistant.  As a matter of fact, the reporting of outbreaks due to antibiotic-resistant bacteria has increased each decade since the 1970s and rose by 40% in the last decade ” (DeWaal, Roberts, and Catella, 2011).  The emergence of antibiotic-resistant infections caused by Salmonella typhimureum, Campylobacter, Staphylococcus aureus, and Escherichia coli 0157:H7 increase the potential for disease outbreaks from eating or handling foods contaminated with pathogens in schools, daycare facilities, restaurants, and the home.  The consumption of raw fruits and vegetables increases the risk for infant and child exposures to bacterial and viral pathogens including Listeria monocytogenes, Toxoplasma Gondii, Hepatitis A, Rotaviruses, Enteroviruses, Adenoviruses (CSPI, 2006).  The toll on children’s health attributed to unsafe agricultural, food production, and food handling practices can result in permanent morbidity or mortality.


The ingestion of synthetic chemicals used to enhance the appearance, flavor, and shelf life of food is yet another area of concern.  Artificial flavor enhancers, colors, dyes, ripening agents, sweeteners, and preservatives that are commonly found in the modern American diets of children have been linked to Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (McCann, et al, 2007).  A study conducted by the University of Southhampton found that artificial colors and sodium benzoate preservatives in the diet resulted in increased hyperactivity in 3-year-old and 8/9-year-old children (McCann et al., 2007).  The detection of plastic pollutants (phthalates) such as Bisphenol A (BPA) in the manufacturing of baby bottles, reusable cups, and lining of food and beverage containers poses further concern (HHS, 2012) (EPA, 2007).  Phthalates have been detected in foods that children most frequently consume such as milk, cheese, meat, margarine, eggs, cereal, baby food, and infant formula (EPA, 2007).  The phthalates, diethylhexyl phthalate (DEHP), dibutyl phthalate (DBP), and butyl benzyl phthalate (BBP), have been closely associated with adverse developmental and reproductive health effects (Fabjan, Hulzebos, Mennes, & Piersma, 2006).


The growing demand for affordable meat and dairy products in America has led to the utilization of hormones and antibiotics to produce meat, eggs, and milk as rapidly and cheaply as possible.  The FDA approves a number of steroid hormones to increase the growth rate in growing cattle and sheep as well as Recombinant Bovine Growth Hormone (rBGH) to increase milk production in dairy cattle.  While the association of hormones with the early onset of puberty and cancer has yet to be scientifically proven, the uncertainty has prompted the banning of rBGH in Japan, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand and the use of all hormones in beef by the European Union.  Approximately 70% of all antibiotics used in the United States are administered to healthy livestock at low doses to promote faster growth and to mitigate for unsanitary living conditions, especially in Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs), (NRC, 2007).  This practice has contributed to an epidemic of antibiotic-resistant infections in America. The CDC estimates that 2 million antibiotic-resistant infections and 90,000 deaths occur annually (Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production, 2008).  Children are especially vulnerable to this health risk.


Pesticides, growth hormones, and other various chemicals that are commonly found in America’s conventionally raised meats, fruits, and vegetables contain obesogens that disrupt normal functioning of the endocrine system, causing weight gain.  According to data from the National Health and Examination Survey (NHANES), “approximately 17% (or 12.5 million) of children and adolescents aged 2—19 years are obese” (CDC, 2011).  Sadly, the prevalence of obesity among children and adolescents has nearly tripled since 1980 (CDC, 2011).  The principal causes of sickness, disability, and death in children in the United States today are chronic illnesses and rates of many of these diseases are high and rising (Landrigen & Goldman, 2011). “Toxic chemicals in the environment are making important contributions to these disease trends” (Landrigen & Goldman, 2011).


The foundation for a healthy diet is framed at a young age and developed through the learned behaviors and role modeling of parents and siblings.  Since children can experience great difficulty comprehending the impact of future negative health effects, interventions should begin in the home environment.  The education of parents and guardians is therefore imperative so as to increase overall awareness for food-related health risks and to augment informed purchasing, handling, and preparation of food and packaging.  Improving the modern diets of children will augment efforts to reduce the prevalence of foodborne infections, obesity, and acute and chronic diseases in America today and in the years to come.


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Landrigan, P.J.& Goldman, L.R. &  Goldman, L.R. (2011). Children’s vulnerability to toxic chemicals: a challenge and opportunity to strengthen health and environmental policy. Health Affairs, 30:5842-850. doi:10.1377/hlthaff.2011.0151.  Retrieved from

McCann, D., Barrett, A., Cooper, A., Crumpler, D, Dalen, L., Grimshaw, K. & Stevenson, J.  (2007). Food additives and hyperactive behavior in 3-year-old and 8/9-year-old children in the community: A randomized, double-blinded, placebo-controlled trial. The Lancet, 370(9598), 1560-1567. doi:10.1016/S0140-6736(07)61306-3

National Resources Defense Council. (2011, May 25). Superbug suit: groups sue FDA over risky use of human antibiotics in animal feed. [Press Release]. New York: NY. Retrieved from

Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production. (2008). Putting meat on the table: industrial farm animal production in America. Retrieved from

Pimentel, D. (2004). Environmental and economic costs of the application of pesticides primarily in the United States. Environment, Development and Sustainability, 7(1), 229-252. doi: 10.1007/s10668-005-7314-2. Retrieved from

United States Department of Health & Human Services. (2012). Bisphenol A (BPA) Information for Parents. Retrieved from

United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). (2007). Phthalates: TEACH chemical summary. Washington: DC. Retrieved from

World Health Organization. (2007). Promoting safety of medicines for children. (ISBN: 978-924-156343-7). Retrieved from


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