More than 90% of world’s children breathe toxic air every day

2nd November 2018

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Daniel Whiteley

Approximately 93% of under 15-year-olds breathe air that is so polluted it puts their health and development at risk, including 630 million children under the age of five.

That is the latest warning from the World Health Organization (WHO), which estimates that 600,000 children died from respiratory infections caused by polluted air in 2016.

In a report published earlier this week, the organisation also revealed that almost all children under the age of five are exposed in developing countries, compared to around half in high-income nations.

“Polluted air is poisoning millions of children and ruining their lives,” WHO director-general, Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, said. “This is inexcusable. Every child should be able to breathe clean air so they can grow and fulfil their full potential.”

The organisation has warned that children are particularly vulnerable to the effects of air pollution because they breathe more rapidly than adults, and so absorb more pollutants.

Young people also breathe closer to the ground where some pollutants reach peak concentrations, increasing the risk of childhood cancer, asthma, and chronic diseases in later life.

Moreover, the report highlights how pregnant women that are exposed to air pollution are more likely to give birth prematurely, and to have small children with a low birth weight.

It reveals that 1.8 billion children under the age of 15 are exposed to dangerous ambient fine particulate matter (PM2.5) levels, with air pollution thought to account for almost one in 10 deaths among under-fives.

More than 40% of the world’s population – including one billion under 15-year-olds – come into contact with high levels of household air pollution, mainly caused by cooking with polluting fuels and technologies.

Together, household and outside air pollution are estimated to cause more than half of acute lower respiratory infections in children under five years of age in low- and middle-income countries.

In response, WHO said it is working to help introduce policy measures that support a switch to clean cooking and heating fuels, and that promote the use of cleaner transport, energy-efficient housing and urban planning.

“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,” said WHO’s Dr Maria Neira.

“We are preparing the ground for low-emission power generation, cleaner, safer industrial technologies and better municipal waste management.”

Image credit: iStock


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