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Brundtland starts new movement to address environmental crisis affecting children's health

Environment kills the equivalent of a jumbo jet full of children every 45 minutes

Dr Gro Harlem Brundtland, pioneer of sustainable development and Director-General of the World Health Organization today outlined publicly for the first time her major new initiative to tackle the worldwide environmental crisis affecting children's health.

"Our top priority in health and development must be investing in the future — in children and the young — a group that is particularly vulnerable to environmental hazards. Today, I initiate a mass movement for children's environmental health. Its ultimate aim is to prevent millions of annual deaths and disabilities in children, especially those of the poor, and improve children’s quality of life," declared Dr Brundtland at the World Summit on Sustainable Development. She called for healthy environments for children to be one of the highest social and political priorities of this decade.

A vast and growing problem that hurts poor children most

Unhealthy environments are a major killer of children, according to the latest evidence. Up to one third of the 13 000 child deaths that occur every day are due to the dangers present in the environments in which children live, play and learn. Put differently, environment-related illnesses kill the equivalent of a jumbo jet full of children every 45 minutes.

Children who manage to survive these threats may be physically disabled or mentally impaired for the rest of their lives, preventing them from reaching their potential and contributing fully to the development of their countries.

Environmental hazards are on the rise. Increasing industrialization, explosive urban population growth, lack of pollution control, unabated waste dumping, non-sustainable consumption of natural resources and unsafe use of chemicals affect the environment in which today's children live.Preliminary estimates suggest that almost one third of the global burden of disease (for all ages) can be attributed to environmental risk factors. Over 40% of this burden falls on children under five years of age, even though they make up only about 10% of the world's population. In under fives, unhealthy environments contributed to most of the 1.3 million deaths from diarrhoea; 2 million deaths from acute respiratory infections; 1 million deaths from malaria and other infectious diseases; and 400 000 deaths from injuries making a grim total of 4.7 million preventable deaths in the year 2000.

While all children, no matter what their socio-economic level, are affected by the environmental health burden, poor children are most at risk because poverty aggravates the effects of environmental risk factors. Such high risk children live in poor regions and poor countries. They are found in the poor communities or families even in rich countries.

One in five children in the poorest parts of the world will not live beyond their fifth birthday to a large extent because of environment-related diseases. The international community, however, agreed on a Millennium Development Goal to reduce by two-thirds the under-five mortality rate by 2015.

Children are highly vulnerable to environmental health hazards because they breathe more air and consume more food and water in proportion to their weight than adults. Their immune, digestive, reproductive and central nervous systems are more vulnerable than those of adults. Children also live their lives closer to the ground exposing them more to unhealthy conditions and dangerous chemicals.

The two major problems for children that arise from an unhealthy environment are infectious disease due to lack of safe water and sanitation and acute respiratory infections due to high levels of indoor air pollution in combination with poor housing. Asthma, neurological effects and cancer, among other problems, can also arise in children as a result of an unhealthy environment.

An initiative that will mobilize the players and achieve results in six areas

To give children, from infants to adolescents, the special protection they need unsafe places―homes, schools, workplaces, playgrounds and streets― must urgently be cleaned up. In addition, unhealthy behaviors―such as poor hygiene, scavenging, playing with dangerous materials and inappropriate nutrition―must be changed and their root causes addressed.

Based on the scientific evidence, Dr Brundtland's initiative covers six main areas of environmental risks to children the world over:

  • household water quality and availability;
  • hygiene and sanitation;
  • indoor and outdoor air pollution;
  • disease vectors (e.g. malaria-transmitting mosquitoes);
  • chemicals (pesticides and lead); and
  • accidents and injuries.

Key interventions include: improving water supply and sanitation facilities; teaching the importance of washing hands with soap and water; installing improved cooking stoves and adequately ventilating the home; using unleaded gasoline in vehicles; sleeping under insecticide-treated bednets to protect against malaria-transmitting mosquitoes; and breastfeeding infants.“Unsafe and unhealthy environments are violating children's rights to health and thwarting their basic survival. This must stop before it's too late. There is no excuse: we already have cost-effective, proven tools and strategies to reduce and eliminate biological, chemical and physical hazards present in a child's environment. These tools urgently must be made available worldwide,” said Dr Brundtland.

A global alliance to lead the movement and catalyze action

The Healthy Environments for Children initiative, as its starting point, will:

  • Mobilize partners and individuals into a broad-based, popular, participatory movement;
  • Empower governments and their local partners to expand and scale up action;
  • Make scientific knowledge on risk factors and the most cost-effective interventions available;
  • Foster cooperation amongst the world's nations and amongst different sectors within each country, e.g. environment, transport, energy, housing, etc.; and
  • Build on successful past work of committed decision-makers, teachers, health professionals, non-governmental organizations, the private sector and families.

Because the task at hand would be an insurmountable challenge for any single entity, the movement will be spearheaded by a global alliance of key institutions and organizations. The alliance will come together in the months immediately following the Johannesburg Summit, and aims to be fully functional by early 2003.

National and local level alliances will, using the evidence, rank problems according to importance in their geographic area and decide on appropriate, cost-effective action to achieve results within a specific time frame. One country may choose to focus on provision of safe drinking water; another may need to concentrate on injury prevention; while yet another might, above all, need to find ways to protect kids from sunburn and too much exposure to high levels of UV radiation.

"Healthy environments will go a long way to safeguard the intellectual, social and economic potential of children ― the future of our societies. Sustainable development will not take place unless we make environments healthy and safe for children. We must make this happen," affirmed Dr Brundtland.

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For more information contact:

Ms Melinda Henry
Telephone: +41 (22) 791 2535
Mobile phone: +41 (79) 477 1738
Fax: +41 (22) 791 4858
E-mail: henrym@who.int