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Professor participates in international panel on children’s health

Jerome Nriagu, a professor of environmental health sciences, has spent his career discovering the toxins that plague children. This summer, he had the chance to discuss them in front of an international audience at the United Nations Earth Summit on Sustainable Development.

The summit, which convened in Johannesburg, South Africa, in late August, addressed issues related to children’s health and sanitation in developing countries. Nearly 60,000 participants from the scientific and political communities were invited to discuss solutions to these pervasive problems. The World Health Organization (WHO) invited Nriagu to address scientific factors pertaining to the environment and childhood disease burdens, especially in developing countries.

As a leading researcher on toxic metals in the environment and their effects on children, Nriagu was delighted to be part of the summit. His own fieldwork in South Africa, Nigeria and Jamaica prepared him to contribute to panel discussions on health and sustainable development.

“I have a lot of experience dealing with environmental risk factors,” Nriagu says. “I’m interested in what conditions predispose children to environmental risks, as well as why and how children in developing countries respond differently to these risk factors.”

Though scientists like Nriagu have completed their part in the summit, the negotiators still are working towards finalizing the resolutions to the United Nations. Dr. Gro Harlem Brundtland, director-general of the WHO, hopes to garner support for the Healthy Environments for Children Initiative. The initiative, according to a WHO press release, is designed to foster cooperation among nations and construct a network of teachers, health professionals and non-governmental organizations. Brundtland anticipates that with the program, the nearly 13,000 child deaths that occur every day can be reduced.

Nriagu, for one, believes in the summit’s mission. He agrees that swift action must be taken because children are more susceptible to diseases than adults. Nriagu highlights basic human biology as a starting point. For example, a child’s intake of food, air and water is proportionally greater to his or her weight than an adult’s intake. Children’s central nervous, immune, reproductive and digestive systems still are developing, and exposure to environmental toxins can lead to irreversible damage.

Children, especially infants, are more likely to be exposed to toxins such as lead, pesticides and pathogens because they behave differently and have different patterns of exposure than adults, Nriagu says. In particular, they like to explore with their mouths.

“An infant crawls on the floor, and that’s where they pick up the lead,” Nriagu says. “You can spray pesticides to control roaches, but most of them end up on the carpet and couch cushions—places where children play.”

Nriagu is most concerned with the fact that these toxins specifically target a child’s growing cells. Environmental pollution is a global problem that can affect the health of children disproportionately, he says.

Nriagu believes that the participation of a child on the panel was a wake-up call for the scientific community. “It’s their world, so it was good to know how he [the child] felt about it,” he says.

Nriagu views the summit as an opportunity to address the needs of the world’s poorest nations in a sustainable and environmentally friendly way.

“It was a unique experience. I’ve never done anything like it before,” he says. “I was very happy to see the World Health Organization actually take the position that protecting children from environment-related illnesses is a critical element of sustainable development.”

 


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