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Norwegian research contributes to a new UNICEF report on the environment and children’s health
The report is titled “Places and spaces. Environments and children's well-being”. It compares and ranks the 39 countries based on children's environmental health and quality of life, and whether the countries maintain a good and healthy environment for raising children – evaluating, among others, the following aspects:
- climate change
- access to green areas
- living environment
- traffic safety
- noise, light, air and chemical pollution
The report also looks at sustainability and how one country's consumption and emissions affect children's health and quality of life in other countries.
Norway came in 14th place out of the 39 assessed high-income countries.
Exposure to environmental pollutants during pregnancy can affect brain development of the foetus
The report includes research findings from the NeuroTox project at NIPH. This comprehensive study has investigated the connection between harmful environmental chemicals in Norwegian women during pregnancy and children's cognitive functions and mental health.
NeuroTox shows that a number of the environmental toxins that pregnant women are exposed to daily - through food, water, air and consumer products - can have an adverse effect on children's brain development and increase the risk of reduced cognitive abilities (e.g., working memory), ADHD and autism.
– The fact that UNICEF includes our findings shows how relevant environmental toxins in pregnancy are for children's health around the world and that there is a great need for this research, says NIPH researcher Gro Dehli Villanger, author of the NeuroTox contribution in the report.
– A healthy environment is a fundamental right for all children
– The report clearly shows that environmental toxins are a problem all over the world - and Norway is no exception. That is why this report is important, and it is great that Norwegian research has been given an important place, says Kyrre Lind, Head of Global Health at UNICEF Norway, adding:
– A healthy environment is a fundamental right for all children. It is therefore very important to know how toxins that end up in children and how they affect their health and life.
Camilla Viken, Secretary General of UNICEF Norway, is clear that Norway cannot rest on its laurels, even though we rank highly on many of the indicators.
– Even though Norway scores better than many countries on the environmental situation here at home, we know that children are affected by pollution, loss of nature and climate change in Norway as well, Viken points out
The NeuroTox study
The NeuroTox study is led by researchers at the National Institute of Public Health and the University of North Carolina. It included 3,500 pregnant women and their children from the Norwegian Mother, Father and Child Survey (MoBa) and included measurements of:
- heavy metals (including mercury, arsenic, and lead),
- man-made fluorochemicals (PFAS, including PFOS and PFOA),
- phthalates ("plasticizers")
- phosphate-based pesticides and flame retardants
Since the 1950s, more than 140,000 chemicals have been introduced on the market. Even though this is important from a public health perspective, precious little research has been done on the effects of these substances, which are transmitted from mother to child during pregnancy, and with breast milk to new-borns. It is believed that many of the chemicals are harmful to the brain development of foetuses and new-borns, even at very low levels.
Socioeconomic inequality can exacerbate the effects on children’s health
According to an earlier UNICEF report on lead, titled "The Toxic Truth", 1 in 3 children in the world had unsafe levels of lead in their blood. Children from low-income countries fare the worst, but the levels in high-income countries such as Norway are not insignificant.
The new UNICEF report estimates that around 1.8 percent of Norwegian children have elevated lead levels (over 5 micrograms of lead per decilitre of blood), which is known to affect IQ and cognitive development.
Lead is harmful to the development of the brain and nervous system at very low levels, and as low as 1.2 micrograms of lead per decilitre of blood can affect children's IQ. Results from the NeuroTox study showed that even very low lead levels in pregnant women can increase the risk of autism.
The UNICEF report shows that around 2.9 percent of Norwegian children live in areas with high pesticide contamination, including phosphate-based pesticides, which were examined in pregnant women in the NeuroTox study. Several of these drugs were associated with reduced cognitive function and ADHD in children.
– The report shows that pregnant women and children in Norway are exposed to similar levels of environmental toxins as those in other high-income countries, but we know little about how the situation is in low- and middle-income countries, or how social inequality can affect levels and health consequences in children, says Adriano Winterton, postdoctoral fellow at NIPH and co-author of the NeuroTox contribution in the UNICEF report.
FHI will continue to research this in collaboration with the Centre for Global Health Inequalities Research (CHAIN) at NTNU.