Children the Centerpiece of Europe's Green Week

BRUSSELS, Belgium, April 15, 2002 (ENS) - Impacts of environmental degradation and children's health were the focal point of discussions as the European Commission's latest annual Green Week of environmental meetings and exhibitions got underway today.

Speaking at Green Week's opening session, Acting Environment Director-General Jean-François Verstrynge said a forthcoming European Union environment and health strategy would pay "particular attention" to children and pregnant women, with a new emphasis on combined exposure to pollutants.

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Winner in the Green Week children's painting competition, 10 year old Ivor Garcia Villa of Spain (Photo courtesy European Commission)
Environment and health is one of four areas picked out for special attention under last year's EU sustainable development strategy.

"Children are often the first to pay the price of unsustainable development," Verstrynge said. The strategy will include a series of objectives such as identifying the 10 main causes of asthma, allergic reactions and respiratory diseases, and reducing exposure to them by 10 percent by 2015. Actions will focus on research and creating a new environment and health monitoring network.

European Commission President Romano Prodi told the conference that there are more than 90 million children in Europe. "If all 90 million children each make a little effort to safeguard our environment this can make a big difference. Each of you plays a vital role in helping to create a better environment," he said.

Prodi said the goal of Green Week is to "raise awareness and engage the more than 3,000 participants in active debate. Debate followed by real action."

The opening Green Week session also saw the launch of a major review of environment and child health by the European environment agency and the World Health Organization's European office. The subject will take up the first two days of the week, with sustainable consumption and the Natura 2000 network featuring later on.

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Pageant of children, Morpeth Northumbrian Gathering (Photo by Ian Britton courtesy Freefoto.com)
World Health Organization Europe Director Marc Danzon outlined key findings from the report - up to 40 percent of the burden of environmentally caused disease worldwide falls on children under five. The neurotoxins lead, methyl mercury and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) pose a particular risk to children. Tobacco smoke and indoor pollution are a "major environmental threat" to health, Danzon said.

Children are particularly vulnerable as "developing organisms," he said. They breathe, eat and drink more in proportion to their bodyweight than adults, and have a "unique susceptibility" to some chemicals commonly found in their environment. Childhood exposure to pollution also has long term consequences that last into adulthood.

Despite the promised strategy, British Member of the European Parliament Glenys Kinnock told the conference that the EU is still failing to "mainstream" children. "Children have been failed by many EU policies, and there's a long way to go also in the environment," she said.

The Youth Environment Council of Ministers including young people from all 15 European Union nations will meet on Friday to debate health and environmental themes.