Air Pollution: Majority of children breathe toxic air – WHO

Children playing
Children playing

More than nine in 10 children around the world breathe air so polluted it puts their health and development at serious risk and kills some of them, a new global health report has found.

The report was published on Monday,  two days after the health body said air pollution claims seven million lives worldwide annually.

The report released by the World Health Organisation (WHO) revealed that 600,000 children under the age of 15 died from acute lower respiratory infections caused by polluted air in 2016.

WHO warned that 93 per cent of all children live in environments with air pollution levels above its guidelines.

It said schools and playgrounds should be located away from major sources of air pollution like busy roads, to try to minimise the risk to children.

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

The WHO report on air pollution and child health further revealed that when pregnant women are exposed to polluted air, they are more likely to give birth prematurely and have small, low birth weight children.

While air pollution is a global problem, it is particularly profound in low and middle income countries, the report stated.

In low income countries, almost all (98 per cent) of children under five are exposed to levels of fine particulate matter (PM2.5) higher than WHO recommended limits.


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The report, launched ahead of the WHO’s first ever Global Conference on Air Pollution and Health, found that air pollution also impacts neurodevelopment and cognitive ability and can trigger asthma and childhood cancer.

Children who have been exposed to high levels of air pollution may be at greater risk for chronic diseases such as cardiovascular disease later in life.

Reasons why children are more vulnerable to air pollution – WHO

Children are particularly vulnerable to the effects of air pollution since they breath more rapidly than adults, and thus absorb more pollutants.

They also live closer to the ground, where some pollutants reach peak concentrations – at a time when their brains and bodies are still developing.

Newborns and young children are more susceptible to household air pollution in homes that regularly use polluting fuels and technologies for cooking, heating and lighting.

“Air pollution is stunting our children’s brains, affecting their health in more ways than we suspected. But there are many straight-forward ways to reduce emissions of dangerous pollutants,” Maria Neira, Director, Department of Public Health, Environmental and Social Determinants of Health at WHO said.

“WHO is supporting implementation of health-wise policy measures like accelerating the switch to clean cooking and heating fuels and technologies, promoting the use of cleaner transport, energy-efficient housing and urban planning. We are preparing the ground for low emission power generation, cleaner, safer industrial technologies and better municipal waste management, ” she noted.


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