Director-General

Fourth Ministerial Conference on Environment and Health

Budapest, Hungary
23 June 2004

Honourable Ministers,

I am happy to be with you for this important Conference. Bringing together the knowledge of the environment and health sectors and coordinating their plans can yield unprecedented benefits. Your focus on providing healthy environments for children offers specific ways to realize this potential. It can help to meet not only current needs but those of the long-term future.

A large part of the world's disease burden can be attributed to adverse environmental conditions. An estimated 2.4 billion people do not have access to basic sanitation and 1.1 billion do not have safe drinking-water. There are solutions to these problems but they require a level of determination and coordination that has not yet been achieved. Unsafe water and inadequate sanitation cause 1.6 million deaths a year. Air pollution causes a further 0.8 million deaths.

For the European Region, these risk factors, together with lead poisoning and accidents and injuries, are a leading cause of death in children and youth and require urgent attention.

Globally as well, children are the main sufferers of environmental hazards. This is partly because they have a higher intake of harmful substances in relation to body weight, and partly because they have less strength and knowledge to protect themselves

It is unacceptable from every point of view that the most vulnerable members of a society should be the ones who pay the price for failures to protect health from environmental dangers. In addition, early childhood development affects health throughout life, so the whole society suffers from the damage done to children's health.

These general dangers are well known, as are some specific linkages such as those between tuberculosis and housing conditions. But, in many areas, the links are hard to verify because health problems have multiple causes and the environmental components often only become clear long after exposure to them. In these cases, health impact assessments can be a valuable tool for risk management and provide a framework for precautionary approaches.

Climate change and globalization make international cooperation in ensuring safety ever more necessary. Policy-makers at every level, from local to global, need new ways to evaluate complex environmental health risks, recognize early warnings, and share information quickly. Your discussions here will help to put the necessary systems in place.

Thanks partly to these Conferences, the dependence of health on other sectors such as agriculture, transport, energy and trade is now widely recognized. The need for intersectoral action is reflected in several international treaties and agreements, and particularly strongly in the Millennium Development Goals. These assert the importance of the environment for health, of health for poverty reduction, and of partnerships to meet the challenges the world now faces.

Most developing countries will not achieve the targets set for 2015 and 2020 unless we find new ways to combine our strength and expertise. This Conference provides an excellent opportunity to discover what can be done and agree on how to do it. I urge you to make the most of it.

I congratulate and thank the organizers for providing this opportunity and I wish you all every success.

Thank you.

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