The Forum Network is a space for experts and thought leaders—from around the world and all parts of society— to discuss and develop solutions now and for the future. Aiming to foster the fruitful exchange of expertise and perspectives across fields to help us rise to this critical challenge, opinions expressed do not necessarily represent the views of the OECD.
The UN Special Rapporteur on human rights and the environment recently presented a new report to the Human Rights Council describing pollution “sacrifice zones” in all corners of the globe. These places—open-pit mines, smelters, heavy industry and garbage dumps—spew pollution into children’s communities.
Early childhood is a uniquely vulnerable window for exposure to environmental chemicals. Infants and children eat, drink and breathe proportionately more than adults, yet their body’s detoxification mechanisms are not fully developed. Child-specific behaviours—like breastfeeding, crawling and putting their hands in their mouth as they explore their environment—mean that children are exposed in different ways to adults. And importantly, babies’ brains are growing at lightning fast speed, laying the foundation for lifelong health, learning and human capital. This intense burst of brain development during the early years should be supported. Yet birth defects, disrupted neurodevelopment and lower IQ are some of the worrying permanent health effects linked to chemical pollution.
Plastics & child health
Plastic has rightly been identified as a priority topic by the OECD, as shown by the publication of its first-ever OECD Global Plastics Outlook that focused on data of plastic production and full-life cycle. Yet, there is a need for greater focus on the health threats from children’s exposure to plastic chemicals and nano- and microplastics. Household dust, air pollution, drinking water, food packaging, toys, textiles and plastic feeding bottles are all sources of plastic exposure for children. Children who pick, burn or live near plastic waste—including e-waste like plastic cables and discarded appliances—are especially vulnerable. Children's exposure to plastic chemicals (such as phthalates and bisphenol A) has been linked to developmental delays, behaviour problems and other health risks.
Hopeful news emerged this month at the fifth session of the UN Environment Assembly in Nairobi, where leaders from 175 nations endorsed an historic resolution to end plastic pollution and forge an international agreement by the end of 2024. Today’s systems for ensuring the safety of plastics are inadequate or, too often, nonexistent. Prevention of children’s contact with toxicants must be prioritised, especially in communities hit hardest by chemical pollution. Urgent work lies ahead.
Read more: Harnessing Artificial Intelligence to Tackle Plastic Pollution: Lessons learnt from the River Eye project by Martino Kuntze, Data Analyst, Blue Eco Line
Plastic is just the tip of the chemical iceberg:
- Hundreds of millions of children globally are estimated to have elevated levels of lead (Pb) in their blood, which interferes with brain development and lowers a child’s IQ, even at low levels. There is no safe level of lead exposure, yet it is still commonly used in ceramic glaze, spices, paint and other products globally.
- Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS, or “forever chemicals”) are a rapidly growing class of chemicals added to everyday products like nonstick cookware, stain-proof textiles and fire-resistant materials, which persist in the environment and our water and have been linked to health problems in children and adults.
- Children living in conflict-affected areas are not only at risk of violence and trauma but also exposure to a cocktail of toxicants including chemical weapons, rocket fuel exhaust, oil fires, contaminated rubble and munitions waste. In 2018, 29 million babies were born in conflict-affected areas around the world, according to UNICEF.
- Many children on the front lines of climate change are also in communities hit hardest by emissions of toxic chemicals into the environment.
- These environmental risks—as well as asbestos, pesticides, flame retardants, toxic metals and countless more—may have the potential to amplify each other’s effects in the body; research is ongoing to study chemical mixtures.
[...] To protect the brain development of the next generation, bold action is needed at a much larger scale, on air quality, food safety, water and sanitation, sustainable production and waste management.
Children grow up with different types of neurotoxic pollution based on where they live and social inequalities. Environmental justice is at the heart of children’s environmental health, yet is systematically neglected. Children’s fundamental right to a healthy environment was recognised by the UN Human Rights Council in 2020. That is why I co-led the creation of the UNICEF Healthy Environments for Healthy Children global programme framework, which emphasises children’s environmental health as a cross-cutting priority.
Some scientists have tested innovative strategies to support healthy brain development, aiming to reduce exposure to pollution during childhood and pregnancy, or mitigating their harmful effects. Examples include indoor HEPA air filters for families, nutritional supplementation and replacing contaminated playground soil.
Yet to protect the brain development of the next generation, bold action is needed at a much larger scale, on air quality, food safety, water and sanitation, sustainable production and waste management. As the OECD gathers Environment Ministers for “Ensuring a Resilient and Healthy Environment for All”, I urge the meeting’s Co-Chairs Carol Dieschbourg and Michael Regan and Vice-Chairs to use this important opportunity to take action to protect children and help them reach their potential.
To learn more about the work of the OECD regarding managing chemicals while protecting human health and the environment, visit OECD's page on chemical safety and biosafety.