More than 12 million people around the world die every year because they live or work in unhealthy environments.(1) Healthy People 2030 focuses on reducing people’s exposure to harmful pollutants in air, water, soil, food, and materials in homes and workplaces.
Environmental pollutants can cause health problems like respiratory diseases, heart disease, and some types of cancer.(2) People with low incomes are more likely to live in polluted areas and have unsafe drinking water. And children and pregnant women are at higher risk of health problems related to pollution.(3,4)
Tracking environmental pollutants is key to figuring out where and how people are exposed. Laws and policies to reduce different types of pollution can also help prevent many serious health problems and deaths.
Children are more vulnerable than adults to environmental risks:
- 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
Reducing environmental risks could prevent 1 in 4 child deaths. In 2012, 1.7 million deaths in children under five were attributable to the environment.
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.
4.van den Hooven, E.H. et al. (2011). Air Pollution, Blood Pressure, and the Risk of Hypertensive Complications During Pregnancy. Hypertension, 57, 406-412. https://doi.org/10.1161/HYPERTENSIONAHA.110.164087