Inadequate drinking water and sanitation, indoor air pollution, and accidents, injuries and poisonings: these are just three of the causes of the approximately 3 million deaths suffered annually by children under age five due to environmental hazards.
1.3 million children under five in developing countries died from diarrhoeal diseases caused by unsafe water supply, sanitation and hygiene in the year 2000. According to WHO’s publication “Health and Environment in Sustainable Development – Five Years after the Earth Summit” 60% of the 2.2 million deaths a year in children under five caused by acute respiratory infections are associated with indoor air pollution (e.g., from the burning of biomass fuels in small, confined spaces), the lack of adequate heating and/or other unsanitary living conditions. Accidental injuries – including road traffic accidents, drowning, burns and poisonings – are the cause of over 400 000 deaths per year in children under five.
The lost or compromised ability to be active which children suffer from environmental degradation is vast. Yet, until recently, no specific efforts had been made to address the environmental hazards which specifically affect children. Children are not “little adults”: they are in a dynamic process of growth and development, and they are particularly vulnerable to the acute and chronic effects of pollutants in their environments.
For this reason, WHO created the Task Force for the Protection of Children’s Environmental Health and is today launching the first major event to address this issue: the International Conference on Environmental Threats to the Health of Children, in Bangkok, Thailand. The Conference is being opened by Professor Dr Her Royal Highness Princess Chulabhorn Mahidol of Thailand and will run until 7 March. Over 300 participants from around the world are expected.
Research suggests that over 40% of the global burden of disease due to environmental risk factors may fall on children under five, even though they constitute about 10% of the world’s population. The Bangkok Conference will focus on the main environmental threats to children’s health and development, and on a range of measures to reduce environmental impacts on children. In addition to the risk factors outlined above, topics such as children’s exposure to lead, mercury, pesticides, persistent organic pollutants and other chemicals will be discussed. The effects of environmental tobacco smoke, radiation, climate change, and food quality and safety on children will also be discussed.
Special emphasis will be given to environmental problems in the Asia-Pacific countries. In Bangladesh and India, for example, arsenic in drinking water is a persistent problem. In some countries, concern exists about exposure to lead (that may cause anaemia and nervous system disorders in under-fives, and has been found to be correlated to subnormal IQ) and by exposure to waste sites. In China alone, an estimated 2.7 million people may suffer from skeletal fluorosis, an irreversible crippling condition that is caused by the consumption of fluoride-rich drinking water. WHO plans on launching pilot projects to help countries assess and improve children’s environmental health in the near future.
The Bangkok Conference also plans to examine ways in which the environment in places besides the home – above all schools, but also workplaces – can be made safer for children. Schools are of particular significance, as a healthy and secure school environment can help protect children from health hazards, abuse and exclusion and can foster learning.
“A commitment to child health means that hazards should be reduced in all places where children spend significant parts of their day, including the roads and forms of transport they use to get to and from these places.” said Dr Richard Helmer, Director of WHO’s Department responsible for Environmental Health.