All Children Have the Right to a Clean Environment

By path2positive

If you’re a parent, you’ve heard your child exclaim something in life “isn’t fair”; the portion of ice cream, the amount of time on the beach, the early bedtime hour. Whatever the grievance, it’s clear that you have created a major injustice in the eyes of your child. And, from the perspective of a child, these are major wrongdoings. But, like all of us who have learned and matured, what once seemed unfair is, in fact, just a minor, common occurrence. Get over it, kiddo.

While we cannot easily change the way a child feels, nor should we, only an adult can understand what constitutes as a major offense in a child’s life. Inadequate access to clean air and water, free from toxic “body burdens”, is one of these. The lead debacles in Flint, Michigan are a glaring example of an environmental injustice, placing thousands of families at unnecessary risk. The absence of a clean, natural environment more often than not leads to increased risks for disease, and can influence a child’s health and well-being. This is why it’s critical we advocate for the protection of these rights. Our children are defenseless.

A Fundamental Human Right

Physically speaking, children are not just small adults, as some may jest. They have different and unique exposures to environmental contaminants and, due to their rapid developmental physiology, children are often subjected to higher exposures of pollutants found in air, water and food. These exposures are often handled quite differently by an immature set of systems than the way adult systems manage them. 

Young children are defined as a vulnerable population by medical professionals and, yet, are regularly placed in harm’s way by the waste we spew into our surroundings, be it carbon dioxide, radioactive emissions, or toxic chemicals. This was the subject of a recent Human Rights Watch report submitted a to the United Nations. Children’s rights are consistently violated in the context of environmental pollution, and most often the source is economic activity, such as mining, manufacturing, farming, or other businesses. In other words, these violations are not mistakes. As our dependents, children have a fundamental human right to a clean environment. And let’s get this straight. We’re not talking the “they-should-know-better” self-destructive behaviors of the teenage years. We’re talking a fundamental right to begin the formative years free of toxic exposures. 

Again and Again

Dirty sources of power are frequently the origin of large-scale environmental health threats. Air pollution from coal fired power plants regularly puts children at risk. Exposure to air pollution from particulate matter, sulfate, sulfur dioxide gas, and ozone can result in reduced lung function, asthma attacks, hospitalizations and even an increased risk of infant death. In the U.S., aging power plants are a primary source of the air pollutants that affect children.

Radioactive emissions from nuclear power have also proven to be problematic for children’s health. According to the National Institutes of Health, 30 years after the accident at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in Ukraine, exposure to radiation from fallout may be responsible for thyroid cancers that are still occurring among people who lived in proximity to the disaster area and were children at the time of the accident. We’re only 5 years out from the nuclear disaster at Fukushima, but time will tell.

Fracking’s no picture-of-health either. Chemicals regularly appear in ground water near drilling sites, and high-pressure injection of water and chemicals to crack the underground shale and release natural gas. “Communities in shale plays across the country have experienced increases in harmful air pollutants such as volatile organic compounds. and ground level ozone,” according to Moms Clean Air Task Force. And, just recently, a new fracking study finds children at risk of respiratory health problems.

Graphic credit: Moms Clean Air Force

So how can we learn from these grand-scale environmental health “mistakes”? Clearly, we ought to be paying attention to what has worked historically and what hasn’t. When’s the last time you’ve heard about solar panel catastrophes? Or energy efficiency debacles? There’s a reason these solutions are comforting to us: Green is clean.

Climate Change Places Children at Undue Risk

Let’s not forget about climate change, interconnected with all the above. Climate changes influence children’s health in a host of challenging ways. Food shortages, air quality and the spread of vector-borne disease are only a few of the threats that a changing climate poses to our younger generations.  In fact, this is the topic of an upcoming webinar co-hosted by the American Public Health Association and ecoAmerica, coming up on May 26th. Presenters will include pediatrician Samantha Ahdoot, MD, FAAP of Virginia Commonwealth University School of Medicine and Samuel Myers, MD, MPH of Harvard Medical School. (Hint: register now.) 

To this end, one of the most uplifting movements of our time is comprised of those organizing for climate solutions. The movement takes advantage of society’s interest in avoiding the dirty sources, proven to make us sick, and the fast moving development – and low costs - of clean energy options.  (Down with the bad, up with the good!) From the businesses sector to the community level, religious institutions to health facilities, it doesn’t take much to sign on to clean energy agreements and make pledges to do something. And best of all, you don’t need a background in environmental science to get involved in climate solutions. All you need is a heart.


Anna Linakis Baker, Writer and Social Media Manager for Climate for Health, has worked in the field of environmental health for over 15 years. She graduated from Georgetown University with a major in creative writing and has a Master of Public Health from Boston University. Email her at anna@ecoamerica.org.

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