Eighteen government ministries have joined with development partners to share knowledge and initiate action on growing environmental health risks, including rising air pollution, exposure to toxic waste and materials, and environmental health hazards induced by climate change.
UNICEF said in a statement on Monday that children face these risks and has presented estimates on environmental risk factors affecting young people drawn from the global Toxic Truth research report released by UNICEF and Pure Earth in 2020.
This included the finding that more than 50 percent of Cambodian children may have elevated levels of lead in their blood, a catalyst for further action that led to the workshop, the statement said.
Lead is a potent neurotoxin that can cause irreversible damage to the brains of children, leading to learning problems, poor academic achievements, mental health and behavioral problems, and diminished lifetime earning potential, according to UNICEF.
“As well as high levels of lead poisoning, Cambodia has the third highest levels of household air pollution in the Southeast Asian region,” UNICEF said.
Cambodia has made notable progress in recent decades in reducing child mortality rates. Under-five child mortality rates dropped from 124 deaths per 1,000 live births in 2000 to 16 deaths per 1,000 live births in 2021, based on preliminary data from the recent Cambodia Demographic Health survey.
The UN body said this progress has been made possible by development and economic growth led by the government of Cambodia, as well as increased investments to improve access to quality health care.
“Reducing environmental health risks is now needed to support better child growth and development so they can reach their full potential and reap the development gains of the country.”
UNICEF presented on the importance of healthy environments for children, and advocated for shifting towards more climate resilient health, education, and water, hygiene and sanitation systems.
“The right to health and development is one of children’s most fundamental rights,” said Anirban Chatterjee, UNICEF Cambodia’s Acting Representative. “Today we came together to share our knowledge on the increasing climate and environmental health threats facing children, and commit to working together to collectively address these challenges.”
“UNICEF will continue to work towards ensuring that children are at the heart of decision-making around environmental health.”
Kol Hero, the Director of the Preventive Medicine Department at the Ministry of Health, said in the statement that the environment and climate are important issues for the government as they are having an increasing impact on people and children.
The workshop on the collaboration between ministries and development partners is one important step forward, convening partners to take stock of the situation and identify areas of further research needed to inform policy development in this area, Hero said.
Hero discussed existing policies around the environment and public health, and called on all parties to work together to increase knowledge on environmental health risks to guide future action.