Millions of children die every year as a result of environment-related diseases. Their deaths could be prevented by using low-cost and sustainable tools and strategies for improving the environment. In some countries, more than one-third of the disease burden could be prevented by environmental changes. According to a WHO study carried out in 23 countries, more than 10 percent of deaths are due to unsafe water and indoor air pollution, particularly from solid fuel used for cooking.
Children make up almost half the population of developing countries. Most of the deaths are among children under five, and are attributable mainly to intestinal and respiratory infections. People living in industrialized countries are also affected by environmental factors such as pollution, occupational factors, ultraviolet radiation, and climate and ecosystem changes.
The integrity of the global environment is being increasingly compromised by the deterioration of the atmospheric ozone layer and an ever-higher concentration of gases responsible for the greenhouse effect. To the degree that these factors intensify, the health of populations will be seriously affected.
Environmental factors affect children’s health from the time of conception and intra-uterine development through infancy and adolescence. These factors can even exert an influence prior to conception, since both ovules and sperm can be damaged by radiation and chemical contaminants.
It has been widely demonstrated that children are more susceptible than adults to environmental factors because, among other reasons, they are still growing and their immune systems and detoxification mechanisms are not yet fully developed.
Interventions both at the community and the national level can significantly improve the environment, including promotion of safe-water treatment and storage, and the reduction of air pollution. The last measure by itself could save almost a million lives a year.
A series of measures being taken at the local level are having a significant impact on improving the environment. Dr. Laila Iskandar Kamel’s work in Cairo is widely known. She has implemented innovative social and environmental projects working with garbage collectors or Zabbaleen. These projects have helped garbage collectors break the cycle of exploitation and receive proper compensation for their work. In addition, she has organized girls from the community in reviving the most ancient of Egyptian crafts, weaving on a handloom using discarded cotton remnants and using the profits for improving their education and providing them with a livelihood.
In Qatar, few natural resources, climate change and the quality of the air are serious challenges faced by the authorities. The Ministry of Environment has taken a series of measures to improve the environment. Among those measures, creating awareness in the population, particularly among the mothers, is an important task. At the same time, a new school curriculum has been completed, placing emphasis on environmental issues.
In the countries in the Americas, an outstanding series of environmental activities are carried out by Ecoclubs, nongovernmental organizations made up basically of children and adolescents who coordinate their activities through several community institutions.
In Ecuador, the city of Loja was afflicted with dumping yards in inhabited areas, which led to outbreaks of infections and contagious diseases. Through an intensive sensitization and education campaign in which community members played a key role in establishing a sanitary landfill and a means for properly disposing of recyclable materials, there was a manifest improvement in the quality of life for Loja residents.
Children, in particular, increased their awareness about the environment and their role in improving it. The planning, design, monitoring and management of the physical environment have proven to be an ideal terrain for children’s inputs and participation.
Such initiatives are taking place worldwide with the aim of improving the environment and, as a result, people’s health. More actions should be carried out in the main cities worldwide to protect all people, but particularly the most vulnerable. To curb pollution is expensive. More expensive, however, is the price paid in children’s lives.
Cesar Chelala, M.D., Ph.D., is an international public health consultant and the author of “Environmental Impact on Child Health,” a publication of the Pan American Health Organization.