Healthy Environments for Healthy Children
This booklet presents key messages for action, summarized from a set of chapters on different environmental health issues, available at www.who.int/ceh/publications/healthyenvironmentsforhealthychildren. The work is a result of an on-going partnership between WHO, UNEP and UNICEF in the area of children’s environmental health, and seeks to update the 2002 joint publication “Children in the New Millennium: Environmental Impact on Health."
Children are especially vulnerable, as they respond differently than adults when exposed to environmental factors. Their immune defences are not fully mature and their developing organs are more easily harmed; thus environmental contaminants may affect children disproportionately. In addition, their airways are smaller than those of adults, and irritating particles may act very fast, causing respiratory diffi culties. They generally spend more time active and outdoors than adults, increasing their risk of exposure considerably. Also proportionate to their size, children ingest more food, drink more water and breathe more air than adults, and children’s normal activities – such as putting their hands in their mouths or playing outdoors – can result in higher exposures to certain contaminants.
Even while in the womb, the child-to-be can also be exposed to adverse environmental risk factors that may give rise to diseases later in life – imposing a heavy burden on public health systems. We still have an “unfi nished agenda” to control those diseases linked to unsafe water and food, lack of sanitation and indoor air pollution. In addition, children may be exposed to new or recently recognized risk factors: climate change, ozone depletion, manufactured nano-particles and endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs) are among the relatively new concerns. Harmful chemicals in soil and effl uent, originating from waste, traffic or other activities may be present in places where children spend time. Some especially long-lasting contaminants (mercury and persistent organic pollutants – POPs) are widely recognized as a threat to health and the environment and are the focus of major international agreements.
Environmental threats and exposure are in many cases preventable. Pro-active coordinated actions are required to raise awareness and reduce risk and vulnerability. Preventive interventions on the environmental management and health sector sides have proven to be effective in protecting children from adverse exposures in many countries and provide a wealth of knowledge and experience from which we can build a strong foundation for informed and effective action.