A child born today has a much better chance of reaching her fifth birthday than ever before. But climate change and environmental degradation threaten to reverse progress on child and adolescent survival, health and well-being.
Children worldwide face a host of environmental hazards, like polluted air, water and food; exposure to toxic chemicals; unsafe infrastructure; and threats related to climate change.
Floods, wildfires and other extreme weather events destroy infrastructure and economies, and pose unique threats to young bodies and minds. Slower-onset events such as droughts and the spread of parasites, bacterial diseases and viral diseases present dangers that are more pronounced for children.
An estimated 26% of deaths in children under five years old can be prevented by addressing environmental risks.
Environmental hazards have been linked to a range of significant health risks for children. For example, the global rise of cancer, diabetes, neurodevelopmental disorders and asthma has accompanied a surge in air pollution, e-waste and the use of harmful chemicals in everyday products.
Three hundred million children live in areas with toxic air (where toxicity levels are six or more times higher than international guidelines). And around 1 in 3 children – up to 800 million worldwide – have dangerously high blood lead levels.
Improving children’s ability to survive and thrive means addressing the profound ways in which environmental factors shape their health and well-being.
UNICEF’s programmes for survival, health and well-being elevate action on climate change and environmental degradation for and with young people, in response to the local burden of disease and risk factors.
In collaboration with the UN system, UNICEF assists governments and stakeholders to apply a child-specific lens to national policies and programmes on health and environment. We focus on primary health care, and work across sectors to prevent child exposure to environmental hazards.
Our Healthy Environments for Healthy Children Global Programme Framework outlines five major actions intended to guide UNICEF country programmes:
1. Strengthening climate-resilience and environmental sustainability in health-care facilities
2. Developing primary health care that’s responsive to environmental risks
3. Embedding ‘environmental health’ into school health programmes
4. Promoting climate and environmental education and action with children, adolescents and young people
5. Mobilizing collective action
Already, UNICEF works with governments and communities in many places to tackle these global challenges. Every child has the right to a healthy environment, and all of us – governments, businesses and civil society – have a role to play.