Around the world, industries are polluting the food children eat, the air they breathe, and the ground they play on. And increasingly, the effects of climate change are hindering children’s access to water and making them sick.

Mercury-contaminated water flows into the Bosigon River in Malaya, Camarines Norte in The Philippines. (c) 2014 Mark Z. Saludes for Human Rights Watch

This week, the United Nations’ expert body on child rights will meet governments, experts, nongovernmental organizations, and affected children to find ways of better protecting children’s rights in the context of environmental harm.

It is high time. Too often, governments fail to regulate businesses that generate toxins to which children are then exposed. Human Rights Watch has documented the consequences of those failures for children who have been exposed to toxic chemicals from leather tanneries, artisanal gold mines, battery factories, lead smelters, and pesticides-sprayed farms, among others. Because of this exposure, children – whose developing bodies are especially vulnerable – have become sick and even died. Parents speaking out have sometimes faced reprisals. The children most affected are typically from poor areas or disadvantaged minority groups.

Governments, supported by the UN and civil society groups, need to take comprehensive action. They should properly regulate businesses, monitor children’s exposure to toxic chemicals, and ensure that those responsible for harming children are held accountable. Too often governments and UN agencies approach the environment and children’s rights as totally separate things. Environmental treaties, laws, and policies on chemicals, climate change, or other environmental issues often fail to address child rights. But research shows they are inextricably linked.

The Committee on the Rights of the Child can make progress now by spelling out the obligations of governments and the responsibilities of businesses to protect children, and by holding governments publicly accountable if they fail to do so. In this age of climate change, pollution, and environmental degradation, children should be protected at all cost.