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National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences

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WHO Atlas Links Children’s Health and the Environment

By Sara Mishamandani Amolegbe

In a new report, Inheriting a Sustainable World: Atlas on Children’s Health and the Environment, the World Health Organization (WHO) lays out the global challenges to children’s environmental health and identifies actions to prevent and reduce environmental risks. According to the report, reducing environmental risks – such as indoor and outdoor air pollution, unsafe water, secondhand smoke, and inadequate sanitation and hygiene – could prevent a quarter of global childhood deaths and disease. Focusing on this missed opportunity, the Atlas outlines steps toward reducing or eliminating these harmful exposures.

The report outlines recent scientific findings related to children’s health and the environment as well as efforts in the health sector to reduce the impacts of environmental health risks. The easy-to-read format was designed to appeal to a wide audience, including the general public, community officials, and national and international policymakers. The document provides engaging infographics, images, and key facts from data obtained by researchers all over the world.

According to the report, the bulk of the disease burden in children attributable to the environment occurs in low- and middle-income countries. The report describes how some of the most common causes of death around the world among children aged 1 month to 5 years, such as diarrhea and respiratory infections, may be largely prevented by interventions known to reduce environmental risks, like access to safe water and clean cooking fuels.

“When we look at the solutions to child health risks that we put forward in the Atlas, such as taking lead out of paint and increasing access to water and sanitation, most of them provide major benefits for children’s health,” said Marie-Noel Bruné Drisse from the WHO Department of Public Health, Environmental and Social Determinants of Health, who coordinated the publication jointly with Fiona Goldizen, from the University of Queensland.

Toward the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals

protecting children from the environment

The WHO uses engaging infographics to explain the burden of the environment on children’s health to a wide international audience. Their infographic on protecting children from the environment, shown above, is available in all languages.
(Photo courtesy of WHO)

The Atlas focuses on improving child health by pursuing many of the United Nations’ (UN) 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to end poverty, protect the planet, and ensure prosperity for everyone. Although the third SDG is specifically focused on improving health and well-being, many of the other goals are closely linked to children’s health, such as goals to eliminate hunger and poverty, reduce inequality, and provide access to clean water and sanitation. The publication is divided up by these goals, outlining problems related to each relevant SDG and potential steps to address them in the context of children’s health.

“We need to work on many of the other UN SDGs in order to achieve the third goal of improving health. This includes improving access to affordable clean energy, reducing poverty, and increasing responsible consumption and production,” said Bruné Drisse. “We highlighted that in the way we structured the Atlas. Achieving these goals would have a positive impact on child health and would have to be achieved through work in other sectors.”

According to the report, multiple government sectors can work together to guide interventions for children’s environmental health. For example, housing improvements may ensure clean fuel for heating and cooking, prevent mold or pests, and may remove unsafe building materials and lead paint. Improvements in other sectors, such as changes to transportation infrastructure, may increase access to public transportation and reduce emissions from car exhaust.

“The Atlas provides a high-level global perspective of how the UN sustainable goals can further WHO’s mission,” said Kim Gray, Ph.D., an NIEHS health scientist administrator and leader of the NIEHS Children’s Centers. “It explains why children’s environmental health matters and offers scientific information on children’s environmental health in a framework relevant to all of WHO.”

A Wealth of Information from Around the Globe

examples of hazardous chemicals

In addition to providing a broad overview of environmental risks to children’s health, the Atlas also provides detailed information about potentially harmful exposures and their sources.
(Photo courtesy of WHO report, Inheriting a Sustainable World: Atlas on Children’s Health and the Environment)

“At a global level, WHO can count on the support from the network of WHO Collaborating Centres for Children’s Health and the Environment, of which NIEHS is one,” said Bruné Drisse. “This very strong network works with us to promote children’s environmental health and some of its Centres, like the University of Queensland, provided important collaboration towards this document.”

As the first update since the 2004 WHO publication, Inheriting the World: The Atlas of Children’s Health and the Environment, this collaborative publication highlights continuing and emerging global challenges to children’s environmental health based on global scientific evidence as well as a more detailed review of efforts to reduce environmental risks.

A WHO companion report, Don’t Pollute My Future! The Impact of the Environment on Children’s Health, provides more comprehensive information on the scale of environmental health challenges on children’s health. This publication, which is also based on data and research findings from around the world, focuses on causes of childhood deaths and provides information about the proportion of those deaths that may be attributable to the environment.

Putting the Atlas into Context at NIEHS

potential impacts on health

The Atlas describes how every SDG has the potential to impact the development of healthy environments for children. They also provide information on ways different sectors can work together to achieve SDGs.
(Photo courtesy of WHO report, Inheriting a Sustainable World: Atlas on Children’s Health and the Environment)

“NIEHS grantees often use these WHO infographics and materials to give an overview of why children’s environmental health is important to stakeholders across the U.S. and what they are doing to provide scientific evidence within each environmental focus area,” said Gray. “This helps to stimulate opportunities to develop effective prevention and intervention strategies that can improve health on both a local and a global scale.”

In the preface of the Atlas, Maria Neira, M.D., director of the WHO Department of Public Health, Environmental and Social Determinants of Health, notes that greater investment in improving environmental determinants of health is required to protect our children from preventable harm. She adds that the publication aims to increase interest in and efforts toward protecting our children from environmental hazards locally, regionally, and globally.

“The information we are putting forward is only the tip of the iceberg. We point out what we know of child mortality and children’s diseases but there is much more that we are beginning to learn and understand about children’s health, including how early environmental influences may lead to diseases later in life,” Bruné Drisse said. “NIEHS has a tradition of excellence in environmental health research. From them and other scientific institutions, we hope to continue to learn more about how environmental factors influence children’s health and well-being so we can better promote action at the international level.”