There is a strong link between poor health and environmental problems. A recent report from the European Environmental Agency, EEA, shows that as many as 60 000 deaths per year in large European cities are caused by long-term exposure to air pollution. Children are more exposed to environmental risks than adults.
One child in seven is affected by asthma. Compared to 30 years ago this is a dramatic increase. In order to reverse this alarming trend the European Commission is today launching A European Environment and Health Strategy. With this new strategy the Commission expects to achieve a better understanding of the complex relationship between environment and health and to identify and reduce diseases caused by environmental factors.
The new strategy on Environment and Health is a long-term vision. The overall aim of the strategy is to reduce diseases caused by environmental factors in Europe. In order to achieve this goal we have to better understand and identify health problems related to environmental degradation, which will allow us to prevent new health threats linked to environmental pollution. Special emphasis will be given to the most vulnerable groups in society, in particular children.
Four priority health effects
The European Environment and Health Strategy will be implemented in cycles. The first cycle, 2004 - 2010, will focus on four health effects:
What happens next?
The detailed actions of the strategy will be prepared based on extensive consultations with experts and stakeholders from the environment, health and research fields in all parts of the enlarged Europe. A first stakeholder meeting will take place on 11 July in Brussels to launch the consultations. Working groups covering the priority health effects and monitoring activities will be set up and participate in three regional conferences during Autumn 2003. The work will emanate in an Action Plan for the period 2004-2010, which the Commission will adopt in spring 2004. The Action Plan will be presented prior to the Inter-Ministerial Conference on Environment and Health in Budapest in June 2004, focusing particularly on childrens health and environment.
Throughout Europe 10% of the children suffer from asthmatic symptoms. Asthma, allergies and other respiratory diseases are one of the main reasons for hospital treatment of children. Also less common diseases, caused by environmental factors, are increasing like leukaemia, which is the most common form of childhood cancer. Many pollutants, including dioxins, are dangerous even before birth. They can reach the foetus in the womb and increase the risk of miscarriage and birth defects. In some parts of Europe, up to 10% of infants develop mental or physical disabilities. These disabilities are blamed on exposure to lead, mercury and certain chemicals. Chemicals, like endocrine disrupters, can also act like hormones and disrupt the way the body functions, with adverse effects on reproductive capacity.
Children are particularly vulnerable to environmental pollution and can not be considered as “small adults”. They are particularly exposed to toxins in water, food and air because they drink more water, eat more food and breathe more air than adults relative to body volume. They also absorb more of the content of what they eat. While adults absorb 10% of any lead in food, children absorb 40%.
Furthermore, their nervous, respiratory and reproductive systems are not yet fully developed. This makes them less able to excrete certain toxins. Children are also particularly exposed to ground level car emissions. As children spend much time close to the ground and put their hands in their mouths it further increase their exposure to toxicants in dust and soil.
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