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Exposure to toxic substances and early childhood development in Latin America and the Caribbean

21 December 2023|Insights

Diogo Demattos Guimarães1

Today, despite a growing consensus that a healthy environment is crucial for ensuring people’s rights and well-being, the destruction of ecosystems, pollution and contamination remain serious problems. The climate emergency is now coming up against critical limits of the Earth’s natural system which, if exceeded, could have drastic and irreversible consequences for the natural balance on which human civilization depends. Any damage caused by environmental degradation in children’s early years can lead to their missing out on opportunities for a fulfilling life (UNICEF, 2021). When it comes to environmental pollution, children are exceptionally affected for several reasons: they consume significantly more food and water relative to their weight; they are more prone to absorbing toxins; their immune systems are not fully developed; and their developing organs are more vulnerable to harm (WHO/UNICEF, 2010). Children also use touch and taste to explore their physical environment and are less able to assess potential hazards and understand written warnings (CRIN, n/d).

A growing number of studies in the region indicate that exposure to toxic chemicals during childhood can lead to a variety of developmental abnormalities and diseases later in life. For example, perinatal arsenic exposure has been associated with increased mortality rates for foetuses, neonates and post-neonates (Hopenhayn-Rich and others, 2000). In addition, arsenic exposure in the first years of life has been associated with increased mortality rates from bladder cancer, laryngeal cancer, liver cancer and chronic kidney disease in adults under the age of 50 (Smith and others, 2012). Paediatric and prenatal exposure to arsenic has also been associated with impaired learning ability and neurodevelopmental abnormalities (Von Ehrenstein and others, 2007; Rosado and others, 2007). Parental exposure to pesticides before and during pregnancy has been found to increase the risk of childhood leukaemia (Monge and others, 2007), while pesticide use during pregnancy has been associated with acute lymphoid leukaemia and acute myeloid leukaemia (Ferreira and others, 2013) and found to affect fetal growth and gestational length (Cecchi and others, 2012; Souza and others, 2005). Even low levels of prenatal pesticide exposure have been associated with severe adverse effects on children’s brain development (Harari and others, 2010). Other findings indicate that living in communities with a high potential for exposure to organophosphate and carbamate pesticides has been associated with poorer neurobehavioural development (Handal and others, 2007).

The Convention on the Rights of the Child (United Nations, 1989) guarantees all children the right to a healthy, safe and nurturing environment that is conducive to learning and growth and free from unwarranted risks. These rights are breached daily by exposure to toxic substances and the socioenvironmental impairments often associated with it. The rights to life, “to the highest attainable standard of health” and to development “to the maximum extent possible” are particularly vulnerable to such risks. Toxic exposure may also breach other provisions of the Convention, such as the rights to recreation, play and education. As for the ecological dimension, damage caused by pollution threatens children’s rights to healthy food and water and to an adequate standard of living, as ecological degradation can jeopardize families’ incomes and children’s future opportunities. In addition, environmental degradation and pollution disproportionately affect Indigenous populations, directly undermining rights recognized by the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), such as autonomy, self-determination and the ability to depend on natural resources (United Nations, 2007).

States should implement concrete measures to prevent environmental damage and exposure to toxic substances, taking special care to protect the rights of children. This requires the development of sound laws and regulations, the provision of health care for affected children, and a precautionary approach in the face of uncertain risks to children’s environmental health. International cooperation is also crucial to regulate toxic chemicals that can harm children, as transboundary rivers, for example, can carry pollution between countries. To ensure children’s voices are heard, States must establish mechanisms for them to participate meaningfully in environmental policymaking. In addition, it is crucial to amplify the voices of Indigenous communities, which have been at the forefront of awareness-raising on environmental issues and advocacy for environmental protection as a human right. By prioritizing these actions, States can fulfil their obligation to safeguard the well-being of the next generation and create a more sustainable future without leaving anyone behind.


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1 Diogo Demattos Guimarães is a Masters candidate in Environmental Economics at Université Paris-Saclay and was an intern in the Social Development Division at ECLAC in 2023.