Vulnerable Populations

We know that the environment can have an effect on health, and we know that some populations, or groups of people within Canada, are more vulnerable to environmental risks as a result of physical differences, behaviours, location and/or control over their environment. These vulnerable populations include, for example:

Children and Pregnant Women

Children are at greater risk from some environmental hazards than adults because of their physical size, immature organs, physiology, behaviour and lack of knowledge.

In the womb, the fetus can be exposed to a number of contaminants which can enter the placenta and may cause developmental abnormalities, including to the central nervous system whose development is particularly sensitive. Depending on when during pregnancy contamination occurs, the effects of exposure can be very serious, for both the mother and the baby.

After birth, it is important to remember that environmental contaminants may be present in human breast milk. However, it is strongly emphasized that breastfeeding is recommended as the best way to feed babies. Research has found that the benefits of breast milk outweigh the risks of exposure to contaminants that it may contain.

Children have unique pathways of exposure that may increase their risk. This is because young children frequently mouth surfaces and products, spend more time in direct contact with surfaces (e.g. crawling, playing on lawns), and can accidentally ingest harmful substances. Children are often closer to the ground, where levels of heavier contaminants such as lead, particulates, pesticides, radon and mercury vapour may be higher. They also have a higher intake of air, water and food in relation to their body weight that may result in disproportional exposures. This means that children have a higher level of exposure when exposed to the same amount of contaminants as adults because their body size is smaller.

Children have a potential for long-term cumulative exposures to environmental hazards, and exposures in childhood are an important factor in determining adult health status. Children live, learn and play in different physical environments than adults. This includes extensive time indoors while at childcare, at home or in school. Finally, children have considerably less knowledge of, and control over, the hazards to which they may be exposed, and therefore greater care and support to prevent their exposure is required.

What Health Concerns can be Linked to Environmental Contaminants?

There is growing recognition that environmental contaminants are a contributing factor to many of the leading causes of illnesses, hospitalization and death of Canadian children including:

  • poisonings
  • fetal deaths
  • intrauterine growth restriction
  • preterm delivery
  • birth defects
  • childhood growth deficits
  • delayed developmental milestones (age at first sitting, walking, speaking)
  • cognitive deficits
  • behavioural problems
  • school performance deficits
  • asthma
  • childhood cancer
  • reduced fertility.

Gaps remain in our understanding of children's environmental health issues. For example, we still know little about the levels and combinations of contaminants to which children are exposed, and how these environmental exposures contribute to chronic diseases and conditions among Canadian children.

What is Health Canada Doing to Protect the Health of Children and Pregnant Women?

Health Canada is working with partners at all levels of government as well as non-government, academic and private organizations to improve our understanding of the association between the environment and children's health. We are also taking action on risks that are known to cause health problems in children.

What Information is Available?

There are a number of fact sheets available including:

What are Other Jurisdictions Doing to Protect the Health of Children and Pregnant Women?

To learn more about what other organizations are doing on children's environmental health, please consult the Web sites below.

Aboriginal Peoples

Aboriginal peoples in Canada can be particularly vulnerable to environmental conditions. Populations living in the North who rely on traditional lifestyles face exposure to environmental contaminants that originate in other parts of the world.

There are a number of environmental health concerns for Aboriginal peoples in Canada, including adequate housing that is free of environmental contaminants, safe and secure water supplies and traditional foods, and a variety of effects related to climate change.

What Information is Available?


As we age, we are more likely to experience a variety of health problems, and are more susceptible to hazards in the environment, even when in good health overall.

Older adults' bodies contain a lifetime's worth of environmental contaminants, many of which can remain in their systems for decades. This higher "body burden" of environmental contaminants, and seniors' sensitivity to additional risks, increases their vulnerability to hazards in the environment.

What Information is Available?

There are a number of It's Your Health fact sheets available including:

Other Resources

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