Deadly particles threaten children’s health

Children are already falling sick, or even dying, due to the destroyed environment bequeathed to them by their elders, the World Health Organization has said. According to its first-ever «Atlas of Children’s Health and the Environment,» almost one in three deaths of children worldwide is due to environmental pollution. Greece is a black spot, with the highest morality rate among children under the age of 5 in the (pre-enlargement) European Union: with seven deaths per thousand children. At the same time, it has one of the lowest proportions of young people, with 18 percent of the population under the age of 18. This macabre first prize is not unrelated to environmental degradation in this country. The atlas has revealing statistics on concentrations of suspended particles in the atmosphere of European cities. According to those statistics, Athens and Thessaloniki are two of the unhealthiest cities in Europe, with concentrations well above permissible limits. Suspended particles (PM10) less than 10 millionth of a meter in diameter are regarded as one of the most dangerous pollutants of the age. Their microscopic size enables them to enter the lungs, often carrying with them toxic, carcinogenic or radioactive substances, acting like like a Trojan horse of pollution. Over the limit According to the WHO, Athens and Thessaloniki have some of the greatest concentrations of particles among European cities, over 30 micrograms per cubic meter, often rising to over 50mg per cubic meter. A study by the National Observatory of Athens’s Institute for Environmental Research calculated average concentration of particles at 56mg per cubic meter. Numerous researchers have long pointed to PM10 as an up-and-coming pollutant. It’s at its most dangerous in Athens, but little has been done by the government to combat it. The upper limit set by the EU on suspended particles is 50mg per cubic meter, which should be exceeded no more than 35 days in a year. Greece is almost permanently above this level. What is more, the EU has decided to lower the threshold to 40mg per cubic meter. Comfort can be drawn from the fact that Athens and Thessaloniki are in the same category as cities like Ljubljana, Graz, Warsaw, Berlin, Prague, Florence, Rotterdam, Brussels and Modena. But it’s noteworthy that large capital cities, such as London, Paris, Rome and Madrid, which often had major pollution problems in the past, have improved their atmospheres as a result of curbs on traffic. Vehicles, of every kind, are responsible for 70 percent of PM10. Particles can affect children even before they are born. Recent research has shown that PM10 can enter the embryo in the womb via the placenta, with adverse effects on lung development. But the problem of pollution-related infant mortality goes right across the continent, and includes countries in Asia that fall into the same WHO region. In these 52 countries, whose ministers of health and/or environment took part in a meeting in Budapest last month (the occasion was used to publicize the atlas on children’s health), 100,000 children and adolescents die every year. At least one-third of these deaths are due to air pollution, unsuitable water, poor hygiene conditions, exposure to lead and accidents (many of them car accidents). Problems in the EU are particularly acute, since one of the fundamental consequences of enlargement is the expansion of environmental problems. Their natural environment plundered, almost all new EU members from Central and Eastern Europe show higher levels of pollution, apart from the more modern kinds, such as dioxins in milk. There, countries of Western Europe are ahead. Growing nightmare Outside Europe, the problem is an explosive one. Nearly 10 million children under 5 years old die every year around the world. Ninety-eight percent of those deaths take place in developing countries. One-third of those deaths are attributed by WHO to environmental factors. Children in Africa, Asia and Latin America die of pneumonia, malaria, diarrhea as well as of contagious diseases, such as AIDS. Causes include water and soil pollution, wretched hygiene, child labor and pollution, even within homes, from the burning of wood for heat and cooking. Children are the first victims of the destruction of the environment. Children’s growing bodies are highly vulnerable and their immune systems not fully developed. They eat, drink and breathe more than adults in relation to the size of their bodies. Not only are they in the habit of putting everything in their mouths, but they have a number of other, open points of entry for toxic substances. Though less than 10 percent of the world population, children under 5 suffer 40 percent of environmentally linked diseases, according to the WHO. «It’s unacceptable that the most vulnerable sector of our society is paying the price for our failure to curb pollution and protect public health,» WHO Director-General Dr Lee Yong-wouk commented on the atlas research. The WHO is concerned about the environment’s future, the greenhouse effect and also about «extreme social phenomena» – in the heart of super-developed states – which accompany the extreme weather phenomena of our times. For example, it points out that 21.9 percent of Afro-Americans who live in older buildings suffer lead poisoning, as against 2.2 percent of the total population. And it underscores that the cost of vaccinating all the children in the world against malaria comes to $7.5 billion, while spending on animal feed in North America and Western Europe is $17 billion a year. Red alert over dioxins Air pollution is not the only thing affecting the health of children. Substances may pass into the food chain and end up in children either through food or breast milk. Toxic substances that cause cancer or other disorders include furans and dioxins, which are so dangerous that the WHO has not even set permissible limits, as even small amounts can be catastrophic for the body. Many of these substances appear in fruit and vegetables from pesticides, and have a tendency to concentrate in animals’ fatty layers. Despite the fact that these substances should not be present in food at all, average concentrations in plant products in Greece stand at 1 picogram (one billionth of a gram) per gram of food. It is a worrying amount, though in Italy the equivalent figure is 1.4pg per gram, in Germany 1.7pg/gram, while the king of dioxins, Belgium, has average concentrations of 4pg per gram. Denmark has just 0.4pg per gram and Malta 0.2pg per gram. There are 30,000 chemical substances circulating in the EU. The overwhelming majority has not been checked for their effects upon human health. Two more problems highlighted by the WHO, the severe consequences of methyl mercury (which is found in fish like swordfish and shark) on brain development in small children and lead-related brain damage that leads to lower IQs do not appear to have acquired serious dimensions in Greece.