The developing fetus and the long-term exposure to toxic chemicals

Toxic chemicals are everywhere – the air, water, food and soil. Exposure to toxic chemicals occurs through breathing, touching and ingesting. The developing fetus is the most vulnerable to toxic chemicals, which can be ingested by the mother when she eats or drinks or when she breathes contaminated air. She can also introduce toxic chemicals into her system if she applies lotions to her skin; or her skin comes in contact with toxic chemicals.

Although the developing fetus is the most vulnerable to the exposure to toxic chemicals, any person can be highly vulnerable depending on age, health and the length of exposure. Long-term exposure can cause more devastating effects. Also, small children are more vulnerable to toxic chemicals than are adults due to their small size and small organs; and that they are growing at a rapid rate.

Health problems associated with toxic chemical exposure

The most serious health risks caused by the exposure to toxic chemicals are asthma, childhood cancers, impaired fertility, birth defects and learning disabilities.

According to Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families, an organization that seeks to reduce the toxic chemicals that people are exposed to, many chronic diseases have increased substantially.

They state that cancers such as “leukemia, brain cancer and childhood cancers have increased more than 20 percent since 1975.” Cases of asthma doubled between 1990 and 1998. A birth defect causing “undescended testes increased 200 percent between 1970 and 1993.” Autism has increased “tenfold” since the 1990s.

How people are exposed to toxic chemicals

Exposure to a toxic chemical happens when a person has direct contact with a toxic chemical or when a substance they come in contact with is contaminated with the toxic chemical such as food or drinking water or as in the case of the fetus, the toxic chemical has entered the mother’s bloodstream and then is transported to the bloodstream of the fetus. The toxic chemical may have been long-term chemical exposure to the mother, such as her eating contaminated fish for a long period of time.

People can be exposed to toxic chemicals by breathing, ingesting or through direct skin contact with soil, dust or sediment.

Drinking contaminated groundwater or surface water can cause chemical exposure. Showering or swimming in water can also cause chemical exposure either through accidentally swallowing the contaminated water or by skin exposure to the toxic chemical in the water.

Air contaminants such as hazardous chemical vapors, other chemical contaminants or dust can cause a toxic and long-term chemical exposure.

Food contaminants happen when food is exposed to direct contact with a contaminant; or food can become contaminated through the food chain. The original source of the contaminant can be eaten by fish that are caught by fishermen and then eaten by the consumer with the resulting toxic exposure to the person eating the fish. In the case of the developing fetus, the toxic chemical travels further in the food chain to the developing fetus causing a genetic disorder or genetic mutation.

Why the developing fetus or young child is more vulnerable

The developing organs of the developing fetus can be permanently damaged by toxic chemical exposure because the introduction of the toxic chemical will stop the normal development of the developing organs within the fetus.

Children between birth and six years of age are in a stage of rapid development; and due to this rapid development they may take in a larger dosage of the toxic chemical due to “body chemistry, level of activity and small body size.” Chemicals introduced into the developing fetus or small child can “alter many processes essential for normal cell development.” These toxic chemical changes can “cause organs within the body to be altered, impairing proper development to a mature organ.”

Adolescents are also vulnerable due to their “increased physical activity and curiosity about the world around them.”

You can find more information about protecting your children from toxic chemical attack on the EPA website.


It is very important to find out as much as you can about the toxins that can invade your environment in order to protect yourself, your unborn children and your young children from the invasion of toxic chemicals. Long-term exposure is more damaging and therefore it is important to find out what you are eating, what you are drinking, and what household contaminants are living in your environment with you and your children.