Euro Kids Face Air, Water Hazards

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Air pollution, unsafe water and other environmental hazards kill some 100,000 children and teenagers in Europe each year, officials from the U.N. health agency said Wednesday.

That amounts to 34 percent of all deaths in Europe in the 0-19 age group, according to a World Health Organization study presented Wednesday at a meeting in Budapest.

Indoor air pollution stemming from the use of solid fuels such as coal or wood in homes, lead poisoning, dirty water and poor sanitation were among the main causes of environment-related deaths, the group said.

"This is a very serious problem and it is our duty to respond in the best possible way," said Kerstin Leitner, the organization's assistant director general. The gathering drew about 1,000 delegates from 52 countries.

Leitner and other participants in the WHO meeting urged governments to increase spending and tighten regulations to improve environmental standards as part of a campaign to improve health, especially among children.

"What happens to people during their childhood determines their health or ill-health during the rest of their lives," Leitner told reporters during the group's Fourth Ministerial Conference on Environment and Health.

For the European Union to "continue to be a benchmark" for international health and environmental standards, the bloc must help its new members catch up to the Western EU countries' standards, WHO Director General Dr. Lee Jong-Wook said.

Ten mostly eastern European countries joined the EU in May, and the gap in health standards between the old and the new members is "relatively big," said Hungarian Health Minister Mihaly Kokeny, whose country is among the new members.

"More resources are needed for the new EU members to have an equal chance," Kokeny said.

Kokeny also urged the EU to adopt indoor anti-smoking regulations to combat health problems related to second-hand smoke, citing bans recently enforced in Ireland.

"Tobacco continues to be the single major killer in Hungary," Kokeny said.

Hungarian Environment Minister Miklos Persanyi said the conference was discussing whether to include a passage in its formal declaration about the possible health hazards of toys made from PVC plastic.

Persanyi said the long-term effects of some of the chemicals used in PVC production had not been studied in sufficient detail and there were concerns that some of them could be harmful.

"It's never too early to be cautious," Persanyi said.


By Pablo Gorondi