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.