Environment and toxics
Everyone, including children, has a right to live in a clean and healthy environment. But toxic substances in our everyday lives – including in the air, water, soil, and consumer products – continue to harm millions of people worldwide. While all humans in all countries are vulnerable to the effects of exposure to toxics, children are more susceptible than adults because of their smaller bodies and particular behavioural habits.
To highlight the impact of toxic exposure on children, we exhibited artwork on the issue at The Three Stags in London in November 2018, an event which featured a discussion with the UN’s top expert on human rights and toxics, Baskut Tuncak. Using facts as the inspiration to get us to confront the fundamentals of toxics, the artworks are a wake-up call about the hazards, our vulnerabilities, and what needs to change. Below is an online gallery of that exhibition.
Children who collect electronic waste from rubbish dumps inhale a cocktail of toxics when they burn off the plastics to harvest scraps of saleable metals.
Unlike adults, children play on the ground, and often in watercourses, exploring the physical world through touch and taste. On account of their age, children are also less able to appreciate and evaluate risks, or to read and pay attention to written warnings. For all these reasons, younger children are especially vulnerable to toxic exposure.
Contact with toxics impairs development, particularly of the lungs, brain, the immune system, and fertility, which are especially vulnerable to environmental influences in childhood.
A number of toxic elements are dangerous even in small quantities, build up in the food chain, and impair physical development in children. Some are carcinogenic, harm the kidneys and respiratory system.
Exposure to pesticides has been linked to neurological diseases, degraded cognitive function, cancer, loss of fertility and, particularly in children, impaired brain development. Each year, pesticides affect the health of as many as 41 million people and are responsible for 200,000 deaths through acute poisoning.
“You must treat the earth well. It was not given to you by your parents. It is loaned to you by your children.” - Kenyan proverb
The World Health Organization estimated in 2004 that 125 million people are exposed to asbestos risks at work, leading to a high global burden of disease and 107,000 deaths annually. Asbestos is banned in the European Union but, in general, not elsewhere.
Lead is used all over the world in batteries, water pipes and cisterns, paints, petroleum, cable sheaths and many other places. It becomes airborne through heating, can contaminate soil and water, accumulates in organisms, and does not break down in the environment. Lead negatively affects the development of intelligence in children, even at low levels, and has been associated with behavioural problems and blood diseases.
Virtually all of the world’s governments have recognised that children have the right to the highest attainable standard of health, and agreed that this requires nutritious food and clean drinking water free from environmental pollution.
The build-up of mercury in fish stocks has exceeded safe levels in 66 countries, particularly affecting coastal communities that depend on fish for protein.
In certain areas, the air, water, and soil are particularly polluted, such as in industrial zones, areas of industrial agriculture, and derelict sites of war, where children may be exposed continuously to hazardous concentrations of contaminants.
In London, United Kingdom, a study revealed that tens of thousands of children at more than 800 schools, nurseries and colleges were being exposed to illegal levels of air pollution that risk causing lifelong health problems.
Up to 1.3 billion tons of food is wasted every year. If wasted food was a country, it would be the third largest producer of carbon dioxide in the world, after the United States and China. Food waste also generates 3.3 billion tons of carbon dioxide, which accelerates global climate change.
The actual and potential toxic effects of synthesised compounds and chemical elements released artificially from industrial processes are still not well understood. Hundreds of common substances are now known to be biologically or ecologically toxic, yet most of them were previously believed to be safe.
Children consume more food and water relative to their weight, absorb toxics more readily, and are less able to excrete them afterwards. For example, young children absorb between four and five times as much lead as adults.
As much 12.7 million tonnes of plastic ends up in our oceans each year. Chemicals from pesticides, plastics, and other manufactured goods eventually find their way into the human food chain. These can include arsenic, fluoride, lead, mercury and many more.
Certain toxic pesticides can sicken or kill bees. These insects pollinate 70 of the around 100 crop species that feed 90 percent of the world. The outlook for bees right now is quite bleak and their declining numbers are a sign of the damage humans are doing to the natural world as a whole.
Fish have been observed to swallow small pieces of plastic which resemble their natural food sources. Chemicals used in the manufacture of these plastics can migrate from a fish's stomach to its flesh before it arrives in a kitchen.