Children are exposed to a wide range of environmental threats that can affect their health and development early in life, throughout their youth and into adulthood. Writing in a forthcoming issue of the International Journal of Environmental Health scientists from the World Health Organization and Boston University suggest that it is time for both industrialized and developing countries to assess the environmental burden of childhood diseases with the aim of improving children's environments.
Maria Neira, Fiona Gore, Marie-Noël Bruné, and Jenny Pronczuk de Garbino of the Department of Public Health and Environment, at the World Health Organization, in Geneva, Switzerland, working with Tom Hudson of Boston University, highlight a recent WHO report estimating that almost a quarter of the global disease burden is related to environmental causes. Such high levels of disease kill more than three million children each year and are, the team says, unacceptable.
They point out that environmental hazards are multiplying and becoming more visible because of environmental change, rapid population growth, overcrowding, and the speedy industrialization uncontrolled pollution of many regions. Those environmental factors that have the greatest disease burden lead to diarrheal diseases, lower respiratory infections and malaria, as well as malnutrition, poisonings, and perinatal conditions.
Work must now be done, they stress, to distinguish the main environmental threats affecting children's health so that nations can identify the various factors and address them through remediation and education through better-informed policy-making decisions. Factors such as polluted indoor and outdoor air, contaminated water and lack of adequate sanitation, chemical and other toxic hazards, disease vectors, ultraviolet radiation and degraded ecosystems are all important environmental risk factors affecting children around the world.
It is crucial to recognize that children are more vulnerable than adults to environmental risks because they are generally constantly growing and more active and so breathe more air, consume more food and drink more water weight for weight than adults. The child's developing central nervous, immune, reproductive, and digestive systems, are also more susceptible to irreversible damage from toxins and pollutants.
They also point out that two other important factors affect the environmental risks experienced by children differently from adults. First, children play and crawl on the ground where they are exposed to dust and chemicals that accumulate on floors and soils. Secondly, they have far less control over their environment than adults have and are usually less aware of risks and unable to make choices to protect their health.
The team hopes that taking action to address all such issues will ultimately reduce the burden of disease affecting children globally and so contribute towards the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).