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Tue 11 Sep 2007 04:00 AM

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WHO assesses child health risks

The World Health Organisation (WHO) has released a report highlighting children's susceptibility to harmful chemical exposures at different periods of their growth.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) has released a report highlighting children's susceptibility to harmful chemical exposures at different periods of their growth. This new volume of the Environmental Health Criteria series, ‘Principles for Evaluating Health Risks in Children Associated with Exposure to Chemicals', highlights the fact that in children, the stage in their development when exposure occurs may be just as important as the magnitude of the exposure.

According to the WHO, the scientific principles proposed in the document for evaluating environmental health risks in children will help the health sector, researchers and policy makers to protect children of all ages through improved risk assessments, appropriate interventions and focused research.

"Children are not just small adults," said Dr Terri Damstra, WHO team leader for the Interregional Research Unit. "Children are especially vulnerable and respond differently from adults when exposed to environmental factors, and this response may differ according to the different periods of development they are going through.

"For example, their lungs are not fully developed at birth, or even at the age of eight, and lung maturation may be altered by air pollutants that induce acute respiratory effects in childhood and may be the origin of chronic respiratory disease later in life."

Air and water contaminants, pesticides in food, lead in soil, as well as other factors that alter the delicate organism of a growing child may cause or worsen disease and induce developmental problems.

The WHO says over 30% of the global burden of disease in children can be attributed to environmental factors. Low weight, asthma, and immune impairment are amongst the potential problems. In adults, cancer and heart disease can result in part from exposures to certain environmental chemicals during childhood.

The vulnerability of children is increased in degraded environments. For example, lead is more toxic for children whose diets are deficient in calories, iron and calcium.

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