Children’s Environmental Health
Environmental quality is one of the key factors in determining whether a child survives the first years of life, and strongly influences the child’s subsequent physical and mental development. They are at greater risk from environmental hazards because of their physical size, immature organs, metabolic rate, behaviour, natural curiosity, and lack of knowledge. Approximately a quarter of the total burden of disease worldwide, and nearly 35% in regions such as sub-Saharan Africa, can be attributed to negative environmental factors, such as polluted air, dirty water, poor sanitation, and insect-transmitted diseases such as malaria. The health of the most vulnerable in society, those living in desperate poverty, the elderly and our children is particularly affected. WHO estimates that each year, at least three million children under the age of five die due to environment-related diseases. Prevention is the only sustainable solution: a healthy future for our children depends in large part on our efforts to safeguard the environment.
Children’s environmental health issues have received increasing prominence in recent years, in the media and public awareness, at the national level (e.g. US/EPA Office for Children’s Health Protection), at the regional level (e.g. the Health and Environment Ministers of the Americas (2002 & 2005), Africa (2008), and Europe (1999, 2004, and 2010), and at the international level (the G8 Environment Ministers (1997, 2002 and 2009). One of the key issues addressed at the World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD) was the nexus between health, environment and poverty; within this theme there was acknowledgement of the special vulnerabilities of children to environmental health threats.
UNEP NYO, in close collaboration with relevant UNEP offices, has undertaken a number of initiatives in the field of children’s environmental health (CEH), with the World Health Organization (WHO), the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF), and several non-governmental and academic organizations. This work has built on collaboration established in the run-up to the World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD), when UNEP, WHO and UNICEF published, ‘Children in the New Millennium: Environmental Impact on Health.’
In 2010, UNEP worked with WHO, as well as UNICEF, to publish an update to this book, entitled ‘Healthy Environments for Healthy Children: Key Messages for Action’ which addresses a wide range of environmental threats to child health – explaining the linkages and proposing action to protect children, while safeguarding the environment on which their health depends.
In 2009, UNEP actively contributed to WHO’s 3rd International Conference on Children' Environmental Health (CEH), held in Busan, Korea (7-10 June 2009). The resultant ‘Busan Pledge’, asked WHO to facilitate the development of a global plan of action to improve children's environmental health and regularly monitor and report on its progress. The ‘Busan Pledge’ stressed that the successful implementation of this global plan of action requires strong partnerships and close networking. Collaboration between and among WHO collaborating centres and international organizations, such as UNICEF and UNEP, national and regional organizations, regulatory bodies, governmental agencies and non-governmental organizations is essential for putting into action the specific components of the proposed plan and gaining the most benefit from limited resources.
The NYO has also undertaken work on specific CEH issue areas, including climate change and child health, including contributing to a UNICEF publication on ‘Children and Climate Change’; and biodiversity and child health. The NYO also played a role in producing publications on childhood lead poisoning and childhood pesticide poisoning.
The NYO also played a significant role in the WHO-led Children's environmental health indicators initiative and its recent report. The NYO also contributes to WHO’s production of monthly issues of HECANET, which provides an overview of media coverage of children’s environmental health issues and relevant meetings, research findings and information and advocacy resources.
UNEP’s CEH work falls within its broader work on health and environment and relates closely to UNEP’s priority areas such as harmful substances, climate change, and ecosystem management. UNEP activities which have a direct bearing on CEH issues - many undertaken in very close partnership with WHO and others - include:
Health and Environment Linkages Initiative (HELI)
Health and Environment Strategic Alliance (HESA)
Strategic Approach to International Chemicals Management (SAICM)
Chemicals and Children Project with Japan Ministry of Environment
Global Alliance for Alternatives to DDT
Global Alliance to Eliminate Lead in Paints
United Nations Campaign for Responsibility on Hazardous Chemicals and Wastes
UNEP Global Mercury Partnership
Partnership for Clean Fuels and Vehicles
Children and Ozzy Ozone
Gender and the Environment
Children and Youth Programme - Tunza