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Children are not small adults

15/2009, 06.07.2009

Seventh BfR Consumer Protection Forum views children as consumers

Risks for children must be assessed differently from risks for adults. When evaluating potential risks from chemical substances, risk assessors must bear in mind that in relation to their body weight children have a larger skin surface, eat more and breathe more rapidly than adults. In line with their age they have an elevated metabolic rate and their bodies ingest larger amounts of certain substances more quickly from the gastro-intestinal tract. Contaminants, which are only broken down slowly, can act over a longer period. Children perceive risks differently and behave differently. Infants, for instance, put objects in their mouths which were not intended for that purpose and may swallow them unintentionally. Children have also suffocated after swallowing peanuts. Typical poisoning incidents involving children may have severe health consequences. Furthermore, children are exposed to different accident risks than adults. "We shouldn’t see children as small adults; they must be viewed as a separate consumer group," says BfR president Professor Dr. Dr. Andreas Hensel. Around 140 participants at the seventh BfR Consumer Protection Forum in Berlin discussed the extent to which science has appropriately assessed the special risks facing children up to now and also the extent to which this has prompted policy makers to establish adequate measures for their protection.     

The representatives from science, politics, public authorities, the business community, consumer associations and media agreed that the results of risk assessments for adults cannot simply be “calculated down” or transposed to children. In most cases substance risks for children must be calculated separately. This has to do with the special nature of the physical and mental development and behaviour of children. One criticism made was that frequently not enough data are available for risk assessment. The participants were of the opinion that there was an urgent need for research and documentation.

In legal terms children enjoy special protection from certain substances in food. For instance infant formula must comply with specific requirements before it may be placed on the market. For certain pesticides there are, for instance, stiffer maximum levels. In the case of harmful substances in toys, by contrast, there is a need for improvement. The criticism voiced by BfR concerning the new EU toys directive was shared by most of the participants. The question was raised in the context of toys whether manufacturers should really produce everything that sells – even if such toys could be dangerous for children under certain circumstances - and whether they can rely on parents constantly keeping an eye on their children when playing with the toys. In the context of globalised markets it is important to be able to identify consumer products quickly and clearly so that in the event of health impairments the risks can be assessed. BfR has, therefore, developed a new labelling system for the purposes of rapid identification in emergencies. Widely used labels like the CE mark, which manufacturers award themselves, cannot always guarantee sufficient consumer safety. Improved quality can only be achieved through control by independent institutes like in the case of the GS mark.

There was controversial debate of the role played by parents in protecting their children from health risks. What is clear is that as role models they can make a major contribution to preventing, for instance, accidents like falls, burns and chemical poisoning in the home. But this is dependent on the parents themselves having the relevant knowledge which, according to the multipliers, is not always present to the same degree. There are still gaps in knowledge when it comes to assessing microbial risks which may be associated above all with food of animal origin. There are repeated cases of infections of children with food germs like Salmonella and Campylobacter because parents do not know that these germs may be present above all on raw meat and eggs. This is where there is need for awareness-raising work by associations and state institutions.

Giving children the opportunity to grow up safely is a task for society as a whole. Statutory framework conditions to protect children, which state stakeholders can put in place, are dependent on adequate scientific knowledge which, in turn, must be furnished by a robust, age-related database. This is also a financial question. Everyone involved in looking after children can help to ensure that children learn how to deal with risks in daily life. After all, children will eventually pass on their knowledge and their experience one day as adults to other children.


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