We are all aware of the fact that environmental problems are extremely serious, and they consistently influence us. Experts say that air pollution from fossil fuels could cut our lifespans by two to five years. This means that if we properly tackle climate change, it could add the same years back to our lives. These environmental risks will not only affect our lifespans, but also influence our daily lives and a quality of life.
As a social welfare researcher, I am especially interested in the impact of environmental problems on child development. Environmental risks have a deleterious effect on children’s development. Environmental risks are affecting our lives from birth. There are several reasons why we have to focus especially on early childhood. During early years of childhood, children form the basis of intelligence, social behavior, personality, and capacity to learn. According to neuroscience, the basic architecture of our brain is constructed even before birth and over 1 million neural connections are formed every second during early childhood. This suggests that early childhood is a great opportunity for brain development. At the same time, however, it is a period of vulnerability to negative influences such as environmental risks.
I would like to use air pollution as an example. As mentioned above, air pollution may cut our lifespan by 2 to 5 years on average, but how does it affect children’s development? According to World Health Organization (WHO), more than 90% of children under age 15 breathe toxic air almost every day. About 600,000 deaths in children were attributed to air pollution in 2016 alone. The negative consequences are even more pronounced in underdeveloped countries. Compared to high-income countries, children from low- and middle-income countries are more likely to be exposed to ambient fine particulate matter (PM2.5) levels above WHO guidelines. What is worse is that air pollution has a negative impact on children’s neurodevelopment, mental and motor development and a lasting damage to lung function, reproductive organs, and immune systems.
Lead poisoning is another example. When I was in the U.S., I had an opportunity to participate in the study on lead exposure and child development. The research team found that about one-third of low-income children had elevated blood lead level (> 5 μg/dL) before they entered Kindergarten. Lead poisoning is especially detrimental to children because it is associated with delayed cognitive development as well as higher probability of entering the juvenile justice system and being incarcerated as adults. The downstream consequences of lead poisoning help us appreciate the social costs of inaction. Lead paint from residential properties is one of the main sources of lead exposure and the U.S. government banned it residential properties and public building in 1997 to reduce the environmental and health risk of lead poisoning for children. In South Korea, however, lead is still added to paint for domestic use and there is no legally binding regulation that bans the use of lead in paint.
Now it is quite clear that expose to the toxic environment during childhood can shift the trajectory of children’s life at key developmental stages and have long lasting impacts. So, what can we do to help reduce the negative effects of environmental risks? We all understand the government and international committee have to play a pivotal role in resolving these issues. Paris climate agreement is one of the great examples of international collaborations. We, in our community, have to take part in to tackle the environmental problems. Please remember that environmental problems are affecting you and your families in every aspect of daily life. We need to take an action before it gets too late. Today is the day for action and commitment.