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.