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Children at risk from pollution

3rd August 2007

More than 30% of the global burden of disease in children can be attributed to environmental factors, according to a new report.

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Children have a special susceptibility to environmental pollutants, which changes at different stages of their development.

Degraded and poor environments exacerbate the effects of environmental toxins, with neglected and malnourished children suffering the most.

For example, lead is known to be more toxic to children whose diets are deficient in calories, iron and calcium. One in five children in the poorest parts of the world will not live longer than their fifth birthday, mainly because of environment-related diseases.

According to the report by the World Health Organisation (WHO), children must not be regarded simply as small adults when assessing the impact of harmful chemicals in their environment.

Terri Damstra, WHO’s team leader for the Interregional Research Unit, said their response to their environment could also differ according to the different periods of development.

For example, babies' lungs are not yet fully developed; nor are those of an eight year-old, Damstra said.

Lung maturation could be altered, for example, by air pollutants that induce acute respiratory effects in childhood and may be the origin of chronic respiratory disease later in life, she added.

The report, entitled Principles for Evaluating Health Risks in Children Associated with Exposure to Chemicals, concludes that the age at which exposure to harmful chemicals occurs might be just as important as the magnitude of the exposure.

It said that air and water contaminants, pesticides in food, lead in soil, and many other environmental threats which alter the delicate organism of a growing child could cause or worsen disease and induce developmental problems.

It cited prenatal exposures and birth exposures as potentially causing still birth, birth defects and infant mortality.

Infant mortality, asthma, neurobehavioural and immune impairment might be associated with disease or mortality in older children, while adolescents exposed to harmful chemicals might experience precocious or delayed puberty.

It said recent research had shown that childhood exposure to certain environmental chemicals could also carry an increased risk of cancer and heart disease in adults.

 

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