Children Bear the Heaviest Burden of Environmental Disease

BANGKOK, Thailand, March 5, 2002 (ENS) - Three million children under the age of five die each year due to environmental hazards and accidents, the World Health Organization (WHO) said this week at the first major event held to address this issue - the International Conference on Environmental Threats to the Health of Children.


Princess Chulabhorn Mahidol is a chemist specializing in the synthesis of natural products and in Thai medicinal plant research. (Photo courtesy Chulabhorn Research Institute)
The conference in Bangkok was opened Monday by Professor Dr. Her Royal Highness Princess Chulabhorn Mahidol of Thailand. It will run until Thursday involving more than 300 participants from around the world including professionals from the health, environment and educational sectors, as well as children as part of a community based activity.

New research results are being presented to increase the awareness of different sectors about children’s environmental health. Conference delegates are examining ways in which the environment in places besides the home, such as schools and workplaces, can be made safer for children.

"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.


Child survivor of the Gujarat earthquake of 2001 (Photo courtesy IFRC)
Children are not little adults, conference delegates were reminded. Since they are still growing and their immune systems and detoxification mechanisms are not fully developed, they are especially vulnerable to chemical, physical and biological hazards in air, water and soil.

In industrialized as well as developing countries, the development, the health and well being of children is threatened by unsafe food and chemicals in household products and consumer goods.

The conference is being held under the auspices of the World Health Organization Task Force for the Protection of Children's Environmental Health. The task force integrates and coordinates the complex area of children’s environmental health within the World Health Organization, and provides a global focal point for activities in this area.

The task force says that 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.

Hundreds of thousands of children die from acute respiratory infections associated with indoor air pollution from the burning of biomass fuels in small, confined spaces, the lack of adequate heating and other unsanitary living conditions, the task force says.

Accidental injuries - including road traffic accidents, drowning, burns and poisonings - are the cause of over 400,000 deaths a year in children under five.


Environmental causes of child fatalities are not new. 116 school children died in the Welsh community of Aberfan when a waste tip slid down a mountain, October 1966. (Photo by Ian Britton courtesy
Research suggests that over 40 percent of the global burden of disease due to environmental risk factors may fall on children under five, even though they constitute about 10 percent of the world's population. The Bangkok conference is looking at ways to reduce and mitigate children's exposure to lead, mercury, pesticides, persistent organic pollutants and other chemicals. 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 by children who scavenge waste sites may cause anemia and nervous system disorders in under-fives, and has been found to be correlated to subnormal intelligence.

Nearly 14,000 child scavengers roam the streets in the Tondo district in Manila. In the early seventies, there were only about 50 known scavengers living on the streets of Manila. Now, with the increase of poverty and the massive exodus to the capital, the government puts the number of street children at about 100,000. They are the most conspicuous sign of poverty in the Philippines.

In China alone, an estimated 2.7 million people, many of them children, may suffer from skeletal fluorosis, an irreversible crippling condition that is caused by the consumption of fluoride-rich drinking water.

In the near future, WHO plans on launching pilot projects to help countries assess and improve children's environmental health.