The benefits of a clean and healthy environment for children: what is the UK doing?

The Health Protection Agency has published a report summarising current initiatives which address children and young people's environment and health issues in the UK.

The main findings of the report are that the UK has long recognised both the importance of, and the health benefits gained from, a clean and healthy environment. A range of initiatives have already led to a significant reduction in child death rates and ill health (mortality and morbidity) across the UK. There are, however, a number of issues highlighted in the report which are important to tackle:

  • New emerging concerns, such as the impact of climate change on children. For example, changes in the UK 's climate may lead to increased exposure to UV radiation and therefore an increase in skin cancers.
  • Changing trends, such as the increasing concerns over obesity. In 2004, approximately one third of children aged between 2 and 15 years old in England , Scotland and Wales were overweight compared to below one tenth before 1990.
  • Old concerns which continue to have an effect despite improvements and interventions, such as air pollution. Outdoor air legislation focuses on decreasing air pollution as a whole and this has led to a decrease in emissions of particulate matter by 51% between 1990 and 2005. This does not estimate actual exposure to air pollution and hot spots where pollution levels are very high still occur.

Many policies, guidelines and initiatives are already in place to address these issues. There is still more to be done by building on the work already being carried out. Improving the general environment at specific locations, such as schools and homes, may result in greater improvements in children and young people's health than if the issues are tackled individually.

Children are particularly vulnerable to environmental hazards, because their bodies are still developing and they have relatively higher exposures compared to adults. In the UK , children aged between 0-14 years old take up one third of all GP consultations. In 2004, the World Health Organisation European Region (WHO Euro) developed an action plan to address this: the Children's Environment and Health Action Plan for Europe (CEHAPE). The UK has signed up to CEHAPE and is taking the work forward across the UK through a Government Interdepartmental Steering Group on Environment and Health. As part of this collaborative work, the Agency has produced this report to provide an overview of the current situation as far as children are concerned and to identify possible gaps and priority areas for future consideration.

Delegates at the Agency's Annual Conference will hear presentations outlining some of the findings of the review and case studies that highlight some of the issues. This will be followed by a general discussion about the CEHAPE initiative.

Professor Gary Coleman from the Agency said “Public health protection of children in the UK is very good and well developed. There is already much specific and general legislation for maintaining a high standard. Inequalities still remain though, and addressing these could be an important component for improving the health of children and young people. Future priorities will be driven by a number of issues including climate change, transport and the pressure to build new homes to accommodate population growth in certain regions of the UK. ”

Notes:

  1. The Health Protection Agency has taken forward the development of a Children's Environment and Health Action Plan for the UK , which has been overseen by an Interdepartmental Steering Group on Environment and Health. This Group has been led by the Department of Health and is made up of a range of Government departments, agencies and the Devolved Administrations. The report has been prepared by the HPA and commissioned by the UK Government and Devolved Administrations.
  2. CEHAPE consists of four Regional Priority Goals (RPGs). RPG1 is concerned with water and sanitation. RPG2 is concerned with injuries, obesity and physical activity. RPG3 focuses on air pollution, and RPG4 on exposure to chemical, physical and biological hazards. Four reports which provide more detailed reviews of the individual RPGs have also been produced. This document provides a summary of the main key areas highlighted in the more detailed review reports. The summary document and the four more detailed reports are available here http://www.hpa.org.uk/cehape/default.htm.
  3. The report is part of a larger piece of work being taken forward within the UK on CEHAPE. The first stage was a review of the current work on related issues. The next step is the development of a strategy outlining how this work will be taken forward. The strategy will go though a wide consultation in the autumn of 2007 before being published in 2008.
  4. More information on CEHAPE can be found at www.euro.who.int/childhealthenv/policy/20020724_2.
  5. The Health Protection Agency ' s annual conference takes place at Warwick University from 17th to 19th September. Further information can be found at the conference website at http://www.healthprotectionconference.org.uk.
  6. Please contact the CRCE press office for general press enquiries on 01235 822876/ 01235 822744.

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