"Another Way We're Letting Them Down": Report Shows Deadly Toll of Air Pollution on Children

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"Another Way We're Letting Them Down": Report Shows Deadly Toll of Air Pollution on Children

Air pollution is a major contributing factor in the deaths of around 600,000 children under age five every year, UNICEF finds

Children are "more physiologically vulnerable to air pollution than adults," says UNICEF. (Photo: UNICEF)

Toxic air pollution poses an "enormous" risk to children worldwide, according to a new report from UNICEF released Monday.

In fact, the analysis finds that indoor and outdoor air pollution is a major contributing factor in the deaths of around 600,000 children under age five every year, with almost one in seven of the world's children—300 million—living in places where ultra-fine particulate matter in the air exceeds international guidelines by at least six times.

With "[m]any of these children...already disadvantaged by poverty and deprivation," the report states, "[a]ir pollution is yet another threat to their health and well-being—and yet another way in which the world is letting them down."

The UNICEF report, entitled Clean Air for Children (pdf), used satellite imagery to come up with its findings, confirming "that around two billion children live in areas where outdoor air pollution, caused by factors such as vehicle emissions, heavy use of fossil fuels, dust, and burning of waste, exceeds minimum air quality guidelines set by the World Health Organization."

South Asia and Africa are the regions most starkly impacted, as visible in the map below:

(Credit: UNICEF)

And the satellite imagery doesn't account for the estimated one billion children exposed to indoor air pollution, commonly caused by use of fuels like coal and wood for cooking and heating.

"Together, outdoor and indoor air pollution are directly linked to pneumonia and other respiratory diseases that account for almost one in 10 under-five deaths, making air pollution one of the leading dangers to children's health," reads a press statement from UNICEF. 

In addition to those respiratory maladies, the study notes that air pollution can impair immune response and cognitive development in children, who it describes as "more physiologically vulnerable to air pollution than adults." A separate report from the World Health Organization (WHO), released last month, showed that more than 90 percent of people on the planet live in places where air pollution levels are dangerously high. The WHO called it a "public health emergency."

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Released one week before the next U.N. climate conference, COP22, begins in Morocco, UNICEF's report contains several recommendations for policymakers at that gathering:

  • Reduce pollution: All countries should work to meet WHO global air quality guidelines to enhance the safety and wellbeing of children. To achieve this, governments should adopt such measures as cutting back on fossil fuel combustion and investing in energy efficiency and renewable energy sources.
  • Increase children's access to healthcare: Investing in children’s overall healthcare—including immunization campaigns and improving knowledge, community management and numbers seeking care for pneumonia (a leading killer of children under five)—will improve their resilience to air pollution and their ability to recover from diseases and conditions linked to it.
  • Minimize children's exposure: Sources of pollution such as factories should not be located within the vicinity of schools and playgrounds. Better waste management can reduce the amount of waste that is burned within communities. Cleaner cookstoves can help improve air quality within homes. Reducing air pollution overall can help lower children's exposure.
  • Monitor air pollution: Better monitoring has been proven to help children, youth, families and communities to reduce their exposure to air pollution, become more informed about its causes, and advocate for changes that make the air safer to breathe.

"We protect our children when we protect the quality of our air," said UNICEF executive director Anthony Lake. "Both are central to our future."

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