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Monday, 15 April, 2002, 21:30 GMT 22:30 UK
Children face environmental risks
Two women pushing pushchairs   BBC
Children are at greater risk than adults from pollution
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By Alex Kirby
BBC News Online environment correspondent
line
Children across Europe have to cope with health risks they should not be expected to tolerate, experts say.

The warning comes from the World Health Organization (WHO) and the European Environment Agency (EEA).

In Europe, they say, hazards are increasing in the places where children live, learn and play.

And whatever the risks to children themselves, they are likely to be the most sensitive indicators for entire populations.

The two organisations have published a report, Children's Health And Environment: A Review Of Evidence.

It says up to 40% of the global burden of disease attributable to environmental factors is estimated to affect children under the age of five.

Chemical threat

Children are especially vulnerable to pollution for several reasons:

  • long-term consequences of early exposure
  • their unique susceptibility to specific chemicals
  • exposure to substances in objects they handle, like soil and toys, particularly because of their typical "hand-to-mouth" behaviour
  • the fact that they breathe, drink and eat more than adults relative to their body weight, and so absorb relatively more toxins
  • the fact that children cannot choose what risks to accept.
Domingo Jimenez-Beltran is the EEA's executive director.

He said: "Children are at risk of exposure to more than 15,000 synthetic chemicals, almost all developed in the last 50 years.

Unequal continent

"They are also threatened by a variety of physical agents such as polluted indoor and outdoor air, road traffic, contaminated food and water, unsafe buildings, contaminants in toys, radiation, and environmental tobacco smoke."

Boy with inhaler   BBC
Asthma rates are spiralling
He said the spread of disorders possibly linked with environmental factors, including asthma and neurodevelopmental problems, was reaching "unacceptably high levels in many cases".

The study shows a marked contrast in the health risks affecting children in different parts of Europe.

It says asthma and allergies, for example, have become increasingly prevalent across the continent over the last few decades, with almost one child in three suffering from asthmatic symptoms in some areas.

But in western Europe the symptom rate is more than 10 times higher than in the east. One indicator found a rate of 32.2% in the UK, but only 2.6% in Albania.

The study says this suggests that "a western lifestyle" is linked to aspects that determine the manifestation of allergic diseases in childhood.

Violent deaths

A WHO air pollution study in eight major Italian cities reported 30,000 asthma attacks annually in children younger than 15.

For those living near busy roads the risk of respiratory problems doubled.

Infant with bottle   BBC
A child can absorb 50% of the lead in food
Of every 10 children in Europe aged between one and 14, between three and four deaths result from injury.

Here, the report says, there is a huge gap between the continent's halves, attributable mainly to drowning, poisoning, fire and falls.

It says: "Mortality rates are particularly high in the former Soviet countries, reaching up to more than eight times higher than in western Europe.

"Road-traffic accidents represent the primary cause of injuries in north-western Europe."

On nervous system disruption, it says: "A child can absorb as much as 50% of the lead present in food, while an adult takes up only 10%."

One European child in 500 is estimated to be diagnosed with cancer before the age of 15.

The WHO and the EEA say children and infants cannot simply be regarded as miniature adults, because both their behaviour and their susceptibility are specific to them.

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