Professor participates in international panel
on childrens 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 childrens 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
I have a lot of experience dealing with environmental risk
factors, Nriagu says. Im interested in what conditions
predispose children to environmental risks, as well as why and how
children in developing countries respond differently to these risk
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 summits 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 childs intake of food, air
and water is proportionally greater to his or her weight than an
adults intake. Childrens 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 thats 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
cushionsplaces where children play.
Nriagu is most concerned with the fact that these toxins specifically
target a childs growing cells. Environmental pollution is
a global problem that can affect the health of children disproportionately,
Nriagu believes that the participation of a child on the panel
was a wake-up call for the scientific community. Its
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 worlds poorest nations in a sustainable and environmentally
It was a unique experience. Ive 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.