Environment Blamed for One in Three European Child Deaths

BUDAPEST, Hungary, June 21, 2004 (ENS) - One in three child deaths in Europe is due to environmental factors, according to the first assessment of the overall impact of the environment on child health in the World Health Organization's European Region. Outdoor and indoor air pollution, unsafe water, lead and injuries are responsible for 100,000 deaths and six million years of healthy life lost every year in children and adolescents from birth to 19 years of age, researchers found.

Up to 13,000 children aged 0-4 years die from particulate matter outdoor air pollution and 10,000 as a result of solid fuel use at home, the assessment revealed.

In the same age group, lead poisoning is responsible for over 150,000 years of healthy life lost.

In children aged 0-14 years, 13,000 deaths are due to poor water and sanitation.

The "Environmental Burden of Disease" was published in the June 19 issue of the British medical journal "The Lancet." It was supported by the World Health Organization (WHO) and carried out by scientists at two Italian institutions - the Institute of Hygiene and Epidemiology, University of Udine and the Burlo Garofalo Institute for Child Health in Trieste.

"Although the report carries some ominous warnings, it also opens the door to a healthier future for Europe's children," says Dr. Marc Danzon, WHO Regional Director for Europe.

"In order to know which interventions and strategies to use, governments must first be able to assess and compare the magnitude of risks accurately," he said. "This unique report presents data in a comparative and internally consistent way, thus providing a framework for policymakers to prioritize actions and protect our children's health from environmental hazards."

The need for child-specific estimates of the burden of disease is critical for decisionmaking Dr. Danzon says. The idea that children are not just little adults has not traditionally been considered in policymaking, standard setting or legislation, he points out.

Children from preconception to adolescence are more vulnerable than adults to a variety of environmental factors, because their organ systems are rapidly developing; they live and play "closer to the ground," he said. Children have less control over their environment than adults and are more vulnerable to toxics.

The study's findings provide the core base of knowledge for an action plan to be tabled for adoption by Europe's ministers of health and environment gathering in Budapest Wednesday through Friday at the Fourth Ministerial Conference on Environment and Health organized by the WHO Regional Office for Europe.

The ministers will focus on The Children's Environment and Health Action Plan for Europe (CEHAPE) which defines priority actions to reduce exposure, prevent injuries and achieve substantial public health gains.For example, phasing out lead from petroleum products has proven effective at reducing brain disorders associated with elevated blood lead levels.

Injury is the leading cause of death among children and adolescents from birth to 19 years across the WHO European Region, with the highest proportion of deaths among teenagers - 15-19 years. Multisectoral approaches including engineering, educational and law enforcement interventions have been shown to reduce injury incidence and consequences, WHO says.

The idea for CEHAPE was born in 1999 at the Third Ministerial Conference on Environment and Health in London, where ministers committed themselves in the London Declaration to developing policies and action to achieve safe environments in which children could reach the highest attainable level of health.

The ministers also endorsed the children's health and environment program set up by the WHO European Centre for Environment and Health. This program collaborated on the "Environmental Burden of Disease" study as part of its support to decisionmakers in quantifying threats and risks to children's health and assessing potential interventions.

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