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Health effects of chemicals

Bottles of various household chemicals.

Did you know that even though kids weigh less than adults, they drink more water, eat more food, and breathe more air (per pound of body weight) than adults? Because kids don’t weigh as much, the things you take into your body affect you even more than they affect adults. That’s why poisons can have a greater effect on kids’ and teens’ health. (But don’t worry too much! There are some things you can do to protect yourself from the health effects of chemicals.)

Here are some chemicals that can affect your health and some information on what these chemicals might do to people:


Lead is a natural metal. It can be very harmful. Young children who swallow lead may hurt their nervous systems. They may also have learning and behavioral problems and lower IQs. Lead can affect how quickly children learn and advance in school. It’s important that you — and especially young children and pregnant women — stay away from lead.

How can you be exposed to lead? Well, until 1978, lead was a common ingredient in paint. If you live in a house that was built before 1978, it may contain lead paint and lead dust. Lead paint is a problem if it is peeling, chipping, or cracking. Lead dust is created when lead paint is sanded, scraped, or rubbed. Lead isn’t only found in paint, though. Lead can also be in soil near repair shops, your home, mines, factories, and highways. Even drinking water can contain lead. Lead paint and lead dust can get on your hands and then into your mouth.


Mercury is a poisonous metal that can be found in many places. Sometimes it is found in fish. You and your family can be exposed to mercury by eating certain kinds of fish that has mercury in it. Mercury can also be found in some thermometers. This is a problem if the thermometer breaks.

Mercury may cause health problems for people. For example, children born to moms with high levels of mercury in their blood may have problems learning.

Does this mean you shouldn’t eat fish at all? No! Fish can be very healthy for you! You just need to learn about the best kinds of fish to eat. If you like to go fishing and eat your catch, contact your local health department to find out what kinds of fish are safe in your area. If you eat fish from the store or in a restaurant, try to eat fish and shellfish that are low in mercury.

Fish that are low in mercury (good to eat!)Fish that are high in mercury
Farm-raised catfishSwordfish
Canned light tunaKing mackerel

Bisphenol-A (BPA)

Bisphenol-A (say: bye-SFEEN-all A), or BPA, is a chemical used in some plastic containers, water bottles, baby bottles, and cans that may have links to health problems. Some of these health problems might be reproductive problems and cancer. The chemical is in nearly every metal can in your supermarket and can get into the food kept in the can. It can also leak into the water you drink if you use a water bottle that has BPA in it. Researchers are trying to learn more about BPA and its health effects on people.

Bug spray and other pesticides

Pesticides (say: PESS-tih-sides) are chemicals used to kill bugs and other pests (like mice or mold).  Many household products are pesticides. All of these common things are pesticides:

  • Cockroach sprays and baits
  • Bug spray used on your body (like for mosquitoes)
  • Rat and other rodent poisons
  • Flea and tick sprays, powders, and pet collars
  • Kitchen, laundry, and bath disinfectants and sanitizers
  • Products that kill mold and mildew
  • Some lawn and garden products, such as weed killers
  • Some swimming pool chemicals

It is very important to follow the exact directions on the label when using pesticides. All pesticides are harmful on some level. After all, they were made to kill the things that we don’t want around (for example, mosquitoes or fleas). At the same time, pesticides can have a benefit. Mosquitoes and ticks can cause other kinds of health problems for people (such as malaria or Lyme disease). By killing these bugs with a pesticide, we are saying that the risk of harm from the chemicals in the bug spray is less than the risk of harm from the disease the bug might cause.

The health effects of pesticides can include skin rashes, problems with the nervous system, cancer, or problems with hormones.

Since pesticides are all around us, the best thing to do is to be aware of them and have an adult supervise when you use them.

Medicines, vitamins, and “natural” supplements

Medicines and vitamins are okay when they are in the right amount for the right person. But they can poison you if you take too much, or if you take a medicine that did not come from your doctor. For example, adult-strength iron pills are very dangerous for children to swallow. Children can start throwing up blood or having bloody diarrhea in less than an hour.

Hair dye and make-up

Hair dye and make-up can have chemicals in them and should always be used as directed on the package. If they are used the wrong way, they can cause skin irritation or even burns. Learn more about hair dye and make-up in the Body section of!


Content last reviewed July 20, 2010
Page last updated October 31, 2013