A new report by the World Health Organization (WHO) shows that air pollution is one of the biggest health threats to children under five years-old. Each year, unsafe water, lack of sanitation, poor hygiene practices, indoor and outdoor pollution, as well as injuries claim the lives of 1.7 million children.
According to the study, a large portion of the most common causes of death among children aged 1 month to 5 years – diarrhea, malaria and pneumonia – are preventable and it’s important to take note so the lives of young children can be saved.
Among these factors, children’s exposure to air pollution has emerged as an increasingly special concern. The threat is a serious one and as parents, we all need to think about it. Harmful exposures can start in the mother’s womb and increase the risk of premature birth. Immune systems and lungs are not fully developed and are extremely vulnerable when exposure begins.
It is thought that more than 90 percent of the world’s population breathes air that violates quality guidelines set by the WHO. It is natural for children to spend more time outside, no matter where they live, where the concentrations of pollution from traffic, power plants, and other combustion sources are generally higher. When infants and preschoolers are exposed to indoor and outdoor air pollution and second-hand smoke, they have an increased risk of pneumonia, and a lifelong increased risk of chronic respiratory diseases, such as asthma. Exposure to air pollution may also increase their lifelong risk of heart disease, stroke and cancer.
A report in the study titled Don’t pollute my future! The impact of the environment on children’s health. provides a comprehensive overview of the environment’s impact on children’s health, illustrating the scale of the challenge. The statistics are telling – take a look:
- 570,000 children under five years die from respiratory infections, such as pneumonia, attributable to indoor and outdoor air pollution, and second-hand smoke.
- 361,000 children under five years die due to diarrhea, usually a result of poor access to clean water, sanitation, and hygiene.
- 270,000 children die during their first month of life from conditions, including premature birth, much of which could be prevented through access to clean water, sanitation, and hygiene in health facilities, as well as reducing air pollution.
- 200,000 deaths of children under five years from malaria could be prevented through environmental actions, such as reducing breeding sites of mosquitoes or covering drinking-water storage.
- 200,000 children under five years die from unintentional injuries attributable to the environment, such as poisoning, falls, and drowning.
Fortunately, under the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), countries have set out to work on a new set of targets to guide improvements to children’s environmental health, as well as to end preventable deaths of newborns and children under five by 2030. In addition to SDG #3, which aims to ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all, other SDGs work to improve water, sanitation and hygiene, transition to clean energy to reduce air pollution, and reverse climate change – all of which will have an impact on children’s health.
There are solutions that we, as global parents and citizens, can take to make the world safer for children. Reducing air pollution inside and outside households, improving safe water and sanitation and improving hygiene (including in health facilities where women give birth), protecting pregnant women from second-hand tobacco smoke, and building safer environments, can prevent children’s deaths and diseases. Governments must work to improve housing, schools, health facilities, transportation, agriculture, industry and the health sector to make them safer.
Take Action Challenge
What can you do to ensure the safety of the children in your lives? Think about steps you can take daily such as getting rid mold and pests from housing, having lead paint removed, ensuring sanitation and good nutrition at schools and convincing local officials to create more green spaces in cities.
Take this report seriously. It is not just the acute effects of pollution on children’s health that we need to be concerned about; it is also the potential long-term effects of exposure to pollutants in early life that can have lifelong effects on the health and well-being of our children.
- View and share WHO’s infographic “Protecting Children from the Environment“
- Read and share WHO’s photo series ‘10 facts on children’s environmental health‘
Featured photo source: UNEP