January 30, 2006

Environmental contaminants in North America continue to threaten children's health, says CEC

The incidence of childhood asthma is rising throughout North America, and children in Canada, the U.S. and Mexico remain at risk from environmental exposures, says a new report from the Commission for Environmental Co-operation (CEC).

Prepared by the CED in partnership with public health organizations and the three countries' governments, the first-ever report on children's health and environment indicators in North America provides an assessment in the context of 13 indicators under three thematic areas: asthma and respiratory disease, effects of exposure to lead and other toxic substances, and waterborne diseases.

Asthma in children is the only one of the 13 indicators to be fully reported by all three countries, and the report cites outdoor air pollution such as ground-level ozone and particulate matter - a problem common to these jurisdictions - as a possible contributor. In Canada, the prevalence of asthma has increased fourfold over the past 20 years, and extensive epidemiological research has demonstrated that children are especially sensitive to air pollution, says the CEC.

Exposure to smoke from indoor burning of wood or charcoal is an added problem in Mexico, as 18% of the country's population was still burning biomass for cooking and heating in 2000. Canadian and American children are increasingly less likely to be exposed to environmental tobacco smoke, U.S. data show a disproportionate impact on certain minority groups. Poverty, the report notes, is a major determinant of disproportionate exposure to multiple environmental hazards.

For lead exposure, case studies from all three countries confirm a decline in children's blood lead levels due to initiatives such as the removal of lead from gasoline. However, the CEC says Canada has little biomonitoring data available, as there has been no national blood level survey in the country since 1978.

Other exposure pathways for lead remain a concern, such as older homes with lead-based paint. Recent U.S. data show that 25% of homes have a "significant lead-based paint hazard, which could be from deteriorating paint, contaminated dust or contaminated soil outside the house," says the report.

In 2001, it continues, 24% of Canadian children under age five were living in houses built before 1960, putting them at risk of exposure to lead because most indoor and outdoor paint produced before 1960 contained substantial amounts of lead. As noted under Indicator 6, total industrial releases of lead to the environment by facilities reporting under national pollutant release and transfer registers decreased by 46% between 1995 and 2000 in Canada.

Mexico faces the most significant challenges in North America relating to water and sanitation. Data from 2003 indicate that 17% of the Mexican population did not have water of appropriate bacteriological quality. Advances in the nation's water and sanitation, however, have contributed to a decline in diarrheic diseases from a rate of 125.6 deaths per 100,000 children in 1990 to 20 deaths per 100,000 children in 2002. In the U. S. in 1999, only 10% of children were living in an area served by a public water system having at least one major monitoring and reporting violation, down from 22% in 1993.

The report describes a number of data gaps, which together create an impediment to a clearer picture of the impacts of environmental contaminants on children's health in North America. Better health reporting, it says, will address the data gaps cited in the report.

"This first set of children's environmental health indicators will help improve public policy and promote the cause of improved air and water quality, pollution prevention and better management of toxic chemicals," said CEC executive director William Kennedy. "While this report finds improvement in some indicators and challenges in others, it's clear that measurable progress will require a uniform data set for policy-makers to adequately address the risks to children's health," he added.

Indicators are important for tracking the health of North America's 123 million children because environmental contaminants can affect them differently, and potentially more severely, than adults. Children generally eat more food, drink more water and breathe more air relative to their size than adults do. Moreover, their immune defenses are not fully developed and their organs are more easily harmed.

The CEC and the Canadian, U.S. and Mexican governments were assisted by the International Joint Commission, the Pan American Health Organization and the World Health Organization (WHO) in the development and selection of the children's environmental health indicators and the release of the report. The participants believe it will contribute to worldwide efforts to improve children's health.

"Children around the world suffer disproportionately from exposures to environmental pollution that have far-reaching impacts on health," said Dr Maria Neira, director of WHO's Department for the Protection of the Human Environment.

"Indicators such as those identified in this report provide us with a tool that can help us identify the most important environmental health risks to children, and then target preventive actions which will save many lives," she added.

Government policymakers are seen as the report's primary audience, as they can make use of the indicators to assign priority to issues, implement monitoring and surveillance programs and develop policies to better protect children. Other groups advocating protection of children's health will benefit from the report as well, says the CEC, adding that the information will promote an increased awareness of the role of the environment as a determinant of children's health.

The report, including country-specific summaries, is available on the CEC Web site, www.cec.org. More information is also available from Spencer Tripp at the CEC, 514/350-4331.

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