Warning! Children at Risk!

Mar 302004
Authors: Meg Burd

While we often talk of the admirable goal of preserving our

environment for future generations of children, recent scientific

findings indicate that significant attention should not only be

paid to the future, but also the immediate situation of today’s

children, who are experiencing serious health consequences as a

result of a polluted environment.

“Children the world over are the greatest victims of

environmental degradation,” a 2002 World Health Organization press

release states. In a 2004 study by the WHO and the University of

Udine (Italy), it was found that “the brains of children in many

parts of Europe are suffering greater damage from environmental

risks than previously recognized,” said Alex Kirby of the BBC.

A serious problem, it appears that pollutants, particularly

chemicals and air contaminants, are resulting in decreases in

intelligence, genetic defects and in some cases high mortality

rates among infants.

Seeing this, it seems that if we want to keep children of today

healthy (and even alive in some cases) we must clean up the

environment globally, and we must do it fast.

In the study by the WHO, it appeared that in particular the

pollutant of lead resulted in high instances of diminished health

for children. “Globally,” the WHO says, “15 to 18 million children

in developing countries suffer permanent brain damage from lead

poisoning.” In Europe, where the study was conducted, the WHO

contends that “lead continues to affect children’s brains…

putting their development at risk.”

A sizable portion of this lead pollution that is causing such

deleterious effects can be seen as coming from automobile traffic,

as is the case in places such as Albania where leaded fuel is still

consumed, said Paul Brown of The Guardian newspaper. In the 15

years since the end of communist control, the city of Tirana in

Albania “has paid the price of freedom. Choked with some 300,000

cars, lorries and buses which burn fuel banned by the EU, Tirana is

now seen as the most polluted capital in Europe,” Brown said.

Besides lead, other chemicals are also factors in the

deteriorating health of children not only in Europe but also

worldwide. “More than 30,000 high-volume chemicals are produced and

dispersed into the environment in the industrialized countries of

the WHO European region,” the study found. Resulting in birth

defects, neurodevelopment disorders and cancer in children, the

study found these chemicals impacting a large portion of children

in the European study area. Auto traffic fumes, likewise, were

large health risks, accounting for “290,000 episodes of bronchitis

and 162,500 of asthma in children in Austria, France and

Switzerland,” the WHO reported in 2003.

What can be done to ameliorate these risks or perhaps stop all

together these terrible burdens upon the health of children today?

In Malta, regulation and restrictions on lead-based substances

(including a 2003 ban on leaded fuel) resulted in a dramatic

decrease in the mean blood lead levels of pregnant women and

newborns. Even small decreases in air pollution seem to help

children’s health as well, as reported in the study done by Kenneth

Chay and Michael Greenstone of the University of California,

Berkeley and the Unviersity of Chicago, respectively. Finding that

tiny air pollutants (total suspended particles, or TSPs) played a

role in infant mortality, and even a small drop in such TSPs, as

occurred after tightening of restrictions in places such as

Chicago, resulted in 70 extra infants surviving past the age of


This tightening of restrictions seems to be an important factor

in reducing air pollutants, and we should push our government (as

well as foreign governments) to place tighter restrictions on such

environmental hazards. Tighter control of lead and traffic

emissions could also result in a decrease of illnesses in children

as well, said Louis Deguara in the Maltese Independent.

For all governments, careful understanding of how pollution is

irrevocably damaging the health of the children of today is

essential. Policies should be made with them not adults (or even

worse, the concerns of industry) in mind, said Dr. Roberto

Bertollini of the WHO.

By working to clean up environmental pollutants right now, we

can “assure that children enjoy a healthy start to life,” as Margot

Wallstrom of the European Commission contends.

Meg column appears every Wednesday.

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