International Report Outlines Hazards Faced by Children

By Ellen Kuwana
Neuroscience for Kids Staff Writer
May 14, 2002

A report by international researchers finds that nearly one of every five children in the world has a mental or behavioral problem. The report, written by the World Health Organization (WHO) and the United Nation's Children Fund (UNICEF), said poverty and war are contributing to increased rates of depression and suicide in children and teens. Depression, now ranked fourth for disorders afflicting the young, makes children more susceptible to other diseases.

The report focused in part on adolescents, a young group where chronic diseases and the wear and tear of everyday living are not yet evident. Indeed, most adolescents (90% in 23 countries) reported feeling healthy. This age group, however, had more severe outcomes from health problems than younger children. In this age group, for example, depression often leads to suicide.

The WHO states that 70% of premature (preventable) adult deaths arise from behaviors, especially drug abuse, that began in the teen years. Every year, drug abuse, complications from pregnancy and childbirth, suicides and injuries contribute to approximately 1.5 million deaths in the adolescent population.

Image courtesy of the World Health Organization
The survey also examined tobacco and alcohol use in 11-, 13- and 15-year-old students. In general, more boys than girls have tried cigarettes. The exceptions to these data are children in Canada, the Russian Federation, Latvia and Estonia. By the age of 11, 20% of students worldwide have tried tobacco. By the age of 13, that number has increased to 40-50%; at 15 years of age, 60-70% of students have tried cigarettes. As children get older, they also tend to smoke more cigarettes: at 11, students smoke 1-2 cigarettes per week; at 13, they smoke up to 5; at 15, students smoke 8-30 cigarettes per week.

Alcohol use, too, increases with age. More boys than girls have tried alcohol, although the numbers become more equal by the age of 15. Beer is the most popular alcoholic drink among this age group. At the age of 11, 50% have tried alcohol. By the age of 15, 90% of all students have tried alcohol. How often do students drink? At age 11, 10% of students reported drinking beer weekly; by age 15, 38% reported drinking beer weekly.

Aside from behaviors that harm their health, children are endangered by where they are born. The World Health Organization has created the Task Force for the Protection of Children's Environmental Health to tackle some of the problems children face in developing countries. Unsanitary drinking water, indoor air pollution from the burning of fuel in small spaces and accidental poisoning from contaminated water are just some of the environmental hazards faced by children in many countries worldwide.

The numbers speak for themselves and are particularly alarming when examined for children under the age of five. Young children are not simply small adults. Children are still developing and thus are more vulnerable to toxins, which may cause irreversible harm to their developing organs. Children live closer to the ground, put things in their mouths without regard for safety, breathe faster, eat more and drink more than adults for their body size. These factors all contribute to the absorption of toxins by children. In developing countries, it is estimated that 3 million children under the age of five die each year from environmental hazards such as unsanitary drinking water and exposure to chemicals such as pesticides, arsenic, lead and other pollutants.

Did You Know?

  • An adult can absorb up to 10% of the lead present in food. A child, however, can absorb up to 50% of the lead present in food. ("Children's Health and the Environment," a report from the World Health Organization and the European Environment Agency.)
  • A March 2002 article in the journal Circulation found that drinking water contaminated with arsenic contributes to blocked blood vessels. This condition can lead to stroke. The researchers examined 463 people in Taiwan who had consumed contaminated well water for more than 20 years. These people had a greater risk for stroke based on ultrasound imaging of their blood vessels.
  • The average arsenic level in the contaminated well water in Taiwan was 300 parts per billion (ppb). In the United States, the allowable level is 10 ppb.
  • It is estimated that more than 100 million people are exposed to drinking water with dangerously high levels of arsenic.

    (Statistics from "Hazards: Added Risks From Dirty Water," by John O'Neil, New York Times, April 16, 2002.)


  1. Arsenic in Drinking Water - WHO fact sheet
  2. Mass Poisoning on an Unprecedented Scale - WHO fact sheet
  3. WHO press release on children and adolescents.
  4. We the Children, article about status of children

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