WHO relaunches controversy over children’s exposure to chemicals

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In its most comprehensive study yet on the topic, the World Health Organisation (WHO) has stressed the need for more research on children’s exposure to chemicals, arguing that it may be the origin of cancer, heart disease and chronic respiratory disease later in life. The report comes only months after the EU adopted sweeping new legislation on chemicals control, called REACH.

“Air and water contaminants, pesticides in food, lead in soil, as well many other environmental threats which alter the delicate organism of a growing child may cause or worsen disease and induce developmental problems,” states the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) first-ever report highlighting children’s vulnerability to exposure to harmful chemicals at different stages of development. 

The report is described as the most comprehensive work yet undertaken on the scientific principles to be considered in assessing health risks in children associated with exposure to chemicals. These principles are expected to help  researchers, policy-makers and the health sector design improved child-protection risk assessments and tailored interventions.

According to the WHO, the stage in a child’s development when exposure occurs may be just as important as the magnitude of the exposure. “Children are especially vulnerable and respond differently to adults when exposed to environmental factors, and this response may differ according to the different periods of development they are going through,” said Dr Terri Damstra from the WHO explaining that, for example, children’s lungs are not even fully developed at the age of eight, and that “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”. 

The organisation highlights the fact that over 30% of the global burden of disease in children can be attributed to environmental factors and states that evidence suggests an increased risk of diseases, such as cancer and heart disease, in adults, that is partly due to exposure to certain environmental chemicals during childhood.

The European Chemical Industry Council (Cefic)  states that it has "continuously contributed to increasing scientific knowledge by investing in research and has improved its products and processes accordingly."

"The chemical industry calls for a sustainable and integrated approach that addresses real health priorities and seeks efficient solutions that lead to improvements in public health in Europe. Societal requirements for economic, social, environment and health improvement need to be balanced within the ongoing WHO process," said Cefic Research & Innovation Executive Director Gernot Klotz. 

According to the chairman of the French cancer research organisation ARTAC, Prof. Dominique Belpomme, the cancer rate among newborn babies has risen by a steady 1% every year in the past 20 years. "It is obvious [that the rise in cancer] is due to chemical pollution", he said, arguing that foetuses are exposed to "hundreds of chemicals" in the womb (see EURACTIV 18/10/2006).

The European Environment & Health Strategy, adopted in June 2003, aims to reduce the disease burden caused by environmental factors in the EU. The Action Plan 2004-2010 puts the emphasis on the most vulnerable groups, particularly children, and highlights the need to develop a good information base, including a coordinated approach and more research into human biomonitoring (measuring pollutants in human tissues and fluids).

The June 2007 mid-term review of the Action Plan reiterates the special attention given to vulnerable groups and states that the Commission will gradually step up its effort to exploit the outcomes of several research projects in order to translate their results into policy action. The annexe to the review highlights progress made by several research projects so far.

The EU law on chemicals REACH entered into force on 1 July 2007. It changes the way chemicals are approved in Europe, placing the burden on businesses to prove their products are safe before they can be placed on the market.

  • 13-15 June 2007: The WHO held an intergovernmental mid-term review of the 2004 Children's Environment and Health Action Plan for Europe.

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