Every day around 93% of the world’s children under the age of 15 years, accounting for 1.8 billion children, breathe air that is so polluted it puts their health and development at serious risk.
This is just one everyday factor that threatens the development of young children.
It’s not just a case of bad smelling air that makes your eyes burn and leaves you with a cough.
The WHO estimates that 600,000 children died in 2016 from acute lower respiratory infections caused by polluted air.
The new WHO report, “Air pollution, and child health: prescribing clean air”, examines the heavy toll of both ambient (outside) and household air pollution on the health of the world’s children, particularly in low – and middle – income countries.
The report is being launched ahead of WHO’s first global conference on air pollution and health in Geneva.
Air pollution is one of the leading threats to child health, accounting for almost one in 10 deaths in children under five years of age, according to the report.
“Polluted air is poisoning millions of children and ruining their lives,” says Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO Director-General. “This is inexcusable. Every child should be able to breathe clean air so they can grow and fulfill their full potential,” he adds.
About 600,000 deaths in children under 15 years of age were attributed to the joint effects of ambient and household air pollution in 2016.
Air pollution is one of the leading threats to child health, accounting for almost 1 in 10 deaths in children under five years of age.
More than one in every four deaths of children under 5 years is directly or indirectly related to environmental risks, according to the WHO report. Both ambient and household air pollution contribute to respiratory tract infections that resulted in 543 000 deaths in children under 5 years in 2016.
There are two reasons why children are particularly vulnerable to the effects of air pollution.
They breathe more rapidly than adults and so absorb more pollutants. They also live close to the ground, where some pollutants are more concentrated.
It’s important for children to run around and play, but in highly polluted environments, this poses an even greater threat to their health, as running intensifies breathing.
Exposure to pollutants is so damaging to children because their brains and bodies are still developing.
Children Breathe in Toxic Particulate Matter Way Above Acceptable WHO Levels
In low – and middle – income countries around the world, 98% of all children under 5 are exposed to ambient fine particulate matter (PM2.5) levels above WHO air quality guidelines.
This particulate matter consists of extremely small particles and liquid droplets that get into the air.
PM2.5 refers to particulate matter that has a diameter which is about 3% the diameter of a human hair – so small it cannot be seen by the naked eye.
When a person breathes in, these highly toxic particles, consisting of sulfate, nitrates and black carbon, can get into their lungs. This can lead to serious health conditions like asthma, lung cancer, heart disease, stroke and a number of lung diseases.
These ambient (outdoor) particulates come from vehicle exhausts, industries, and farming.
About 91% of the people living in cities in 2016 were exposed to particulate matter in concentrations exceeding the WHO air quality guidelines.
According to the WHO, ambient air pollution accounts for an estimated 4.2 million deaths per year due to stroke, heart disease, lung cancer, and chronic respiratory diseases.
Air Pollution Threat Right in the Home
But the air outside is not the only polluted air that is killing the world’s children.
While ambient air pollution threatens the health of children, the air in their homes is another serious threat.
This is because most of the world’s population doesn’t have access to clean cooking technology or lighting.
People in poor and developing countries use polluting fuels like wood, charcoal, animal dung, coal and kerosene in stoves or open fires to cook food and heat their homes.
This exposure to household air pollution leads to acute lower respiratory infections among children, as well as from cardiovascular disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and even death.
Technological improvements haven't kept up with population growth, according to the WHO. Around 3.8 million people died from household pollution alone in 2016. Women and children are at greater risk because they are more exposed to indoor pollution.
Exposure to fine particles in both the ambient environment and in the household causes about seven million premature deaths each year, according to a WHO Global Urban Ambient Air Pollution Database, updated to 2016.
“Air Pollution is stunting our children’s brains, affecting their health in more ways than we suspected. But there are many straightforward ways to reduce emissions of dangerous pollutants,” says Dr. Maria Neira, Director, Department of Public Health, Environmental and Social Determinants of Health at WHO.
She added that the WHO is preparing the ground for low emission power generation, cleaner, safer industrial technologies, and better municipal waste management.
Low and Middle – Income Countries Experience the Highest Burden
Although air pollution is a global problem, more people suffer from disease due to particulate matter in low – and middle-income countries. Air pollution is the worst in parts of Africa, South-East Asia, and the Eastern Mediterranean and Western Pacific regions.
More than 90% of air pollution-related deaths happen in Asia and Africa.
The WHO published a survey titled “Global Urban Ambient Air Pollution Database,” earlier this year, according to which multiple cities in California, Indiana, Kentucky and Missouri are the most polluted ones in the United States.
Because the data are collected from various sources, it is difficult to rank cities.
The more polluted US places are Los Angeles, Bakersfield and Fresno, California; Indianapolis; and the Elkhart-Goshen area of Indiana. Others also on the list include Gary, Indiana; Mira Loma, Calexico and Napa, California; Louisville, Kentucky; and St. Louis.
According to the WHO database, seven cities in India top the list of most polluted cities in the world. Bamenda in Cameroon comes in at eighth place followed by four more cities in India and then Peshawar and Rawalpindi in Pakistan.