Environmental risks have an impact on the health and development of children, from conception through childhood and adolescence and also into adulthood. The environment determines a child’s future: early life exposures impact on adult health as fetal programming and early growth may be altered by environmental risk factors.
Adverse environmental conditions and pollution are a major contributor to childhood deaths, illnesses and disability, particularly in developing countries.
Children are particularly vulnerable to certain environmental risks, including: air pollution; inadequate water, sanitation and hygiene; hazardous chemicals and waste, radiation; climate change; as well as emerging threats like e-waste.
- Children are constantly growing. They breathe more air, consume more food, and drink more water than adults do, in proportion to their weight.
- Children's systems are still developing. This includes their central nervous, immune, reproductive, and digestive systems. At certain early stages of development, exposure to environmental toxicants can lead to irreversible damage.
- Children behave differently from adults and this means there are different ways they can be exposed to environmental risks. For example, young children crawl on the ground where they may be exposed to dust and chemicals that accumulate on floors and soils.
- Children have little control over their environment. Unlike adults, they may be both unaware of risks and unable to make choices to protect their health.
Environmental risks account for 25% of the disease burden in children under five. Children's health problems often result from exposure to a number of environmental risk factors in the places where they live, work, play and learn.
Only through adopting a holistic approach to environmental risk factors can significant progress be made in reducing the environmental burden of disease on a global scale. Such an approach means involvement across sectors and at all levels of society including individuals, communities, municipalities, healthcare professionals, and policy makers.
Main environmental risks are:
- Climate change
- Air pollution
- Chemical safety
- Water sanitation and hygiene
Childhood diseases related to environmental factors represent an enormous global public health problem. This is particularly true in developing countries and impoverished communities, where there is often lack of awareness and knowledge about the effects of environmental hazards on children’s health.
To help address this problem, WHO prepares information and training materials and implements training activities. To allow healthcare providers to better identify and prevent childhood diseases related to environmental risk factors, experts from both developed and developing countries have been involved in the preparation and peer-review of materials on specific environmental topics.