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HEALTH-ARGENTINA: Half of Children at Risk for Lack of Clean Water

Marcela Valente

BUENOS AIRES, Apr 29 2009 (IPS) - More than half of all children in Argentina are at risk of illness because of lack of access to clean, running water, while a large proportion are also threatened by polluting industries and the use of pesticides in agriculture, according to a study by the ombudsman’s office.

“Los efectos de la contaminación ambiental en la niñez. Una cuestión de derechos” (The Effects of Environmental Pollution on Children: A Question of Rights) is the title of a report released this month by the national ombudsman’s office, carried out with support from the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), the United Nations children’s agency (UNICEF), the International Labour Organisation (ILO) and the Pan-American Health Organisation (PAHO).

The authors say the report will be updated as the risks posed by new productive activities are evaluated.

According to PAHO statistics cited by the report, around four million children die every year worldwide of health problems caused by environmental risk factors.

More than one-third of the causes of child mortality are related to modifiable environmental factors, says the study. These include lack of access to safe water, inadequate waste disposal, pollution, accidents and occupational illnesses or injuries in the countryside, industry or informal sector activities.

The study shows a series of maps indicating the geographical distribution of the main environmental risks faced by children in Argentina, which are accentuated in the case of poor families with an unemployed head of household lacking health insurance.


“The idea was a prevention tool that can be used by municipal governments, the provinces and the national state, not to denounce the damages but to identify the populations of children who are at risk or vulnerable to pollution,” Horacio Esber, director of social rights in the ombudsman’s office, told IPS.

The official explained that the study focuses on children up to the age of 18 because they are more vulnerable to environmental risks than adults. Exposure to lead, for example, may not affect the adult population, but in children it can stunt intellectual development and cause learning abilities, he pointed out.

The ombudsman’s office receives thousands of complaints about all kinds of problems, many of them involving environmental or social issues. It has worked on cases of rising child mortality in indigenous communities, lead pollution in the northern province of Jujuy, and pesticide poisoning in the central province of Córdoba.

It has also actively participated in protests and legal action by local residents over pollution in the Matanzas and Riachuelo rivers that run through Buenos Aires, which are among the most heavily polluted rivers in the world, due to untreated sewage and the dumping of toxic waste by factories.

The ombudsman’s office’s report, which is based on its own experience and information from around 20 different government agencies, warns that 7.1 million children – 58 percent of the children in this country of 40 million people – are at risk of illness because of a lack of sanitation and piped water, especially in the impoverished north.

Of a total of 531 districts studied around the country, 193 had inadequate sewage systems.

Meanwhile, more than 5.1 million children under 18 – 42 percent of the country’s children – face threats posed by industry, and 2.7 million children – 22 percent of the total – are at risk due to the massive use of pesticides on soy, cotton, potatoes, corn, rice and other crops.

Dr. Zulma Ortiz with UNICEF Argentina told IPS that environmental questions have become a critical aspect of the health agenda in the last 15 years, and that the worst affected are children, who are the least responsible for pollution.

Furthermore, children suffer impacts that can have a decisive effect on their adult lives, she warned. “It is not the same thing to be exposed to pollution starting when you are 40 as when you are newborn, which is why it is very important to protect children, with an eye to the future as well,” she said.

The authors of the report also remarked that key government agencies admitted that they had no information on environmental impacts, such as the Secretariat of Mining and the National Water Institute, which reported that it lacks national level statistics on water quality.

In Rosario, the biggest city in the eastern province of Santa Fe and one of the three largest in the country, “there is high density of polluting industries like tanneries, petrochemical plants or grain silos in an area that has a heavy concentration of children under 18,” said Esber, pointing to the map of that area in the report.

“The municipal government in particular, but also other levels of government, must improve enforcement, oversight and monitoring there to ensure that companies use all of the technology that is available in order to reduce the risks,” he said.

 
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