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Pollution-related diseases pose deadly threat to children, UN agencies warn

Pollution-related diseases pose deadly threat to children, UN agencies warn

Young people around the world are the greatest victims of environmental degradation, with 5,500 children dying each day from diseases caused by water and food polluted with bacteria, according to a new study released today by three United Nations agencies.

Children in the New Millennium: Environmental Impact on Health provides evidence of the threat posed by environmental degradation, which gives rise to a number of diseases, including diarrhoea and acute respiratory infections - two of the leading causes of child mortality.

The report also identifies other environmental problems directly affecting children, such as high levels of toxic chemicals and the degradation and depletion of natural resources. Lead in the environment - much of it from leaded gasoline - causes permanent neurological and developmental disorders, while millions of children working in agriculture are at high risk of pesticide poisoning. Children are also disproportionately vulnerable to global environmental problems, such as the impact of climate change, the depletion of the ozone layer, and the loss of the planet's biological diversity.

The 140-page report, jointly produced by the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF), the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) and the World Health Organization (WHO), was released in conjunction with the three-day General Assembly special session on children, which opened in New York on Wednesday.

"Far too many children are dying from diseases that can be prevented through access to clean water and sanitation," said UNICEF Executive Director Carol Bellamy.

Echoing this concern, WHO Director-General Dr. Gro Harlem Brundtland stressed that people were most vulnerable in their early years. "This means that children must be at the centre of our response to unhealthy environments," she said.

For his part, Klaus Töpfer, the UNEP Executive Director, called for international action in response to the problem. "We should recognize that realizing children's rights and managing environmental challenges are mutually reinforcing goals," he said, voicing hope that the new study would inspire decisive action to improve both the health and environment of children.