WHO: Over 90% of Children Breathe Toxic Air Every Day
USA — October 29, 2018
One of the main problems in the world is air pollution, which is typical for all megacities of the country. As elsewhere, the sources of pollution are vehicles and industry. The vast majority of the world’s children are breathing air so polluted that it puts their health and development at serious risk, a World Health Organization (WHO) report has warned.
Over 90% of all children — roughly 1.8 billion — live in places where pollution exceeds WHO guidelines. Ambient air pollution caused roughly 4.2 million premature deaths in 2016, while 600,000 children died from acute lower respiratory infections due to dirty air.
The problem is most pronounced in low and middle-income countries, where 98% of children under five breathe toxic air every day. The consequences are life-long: Exposure to pollution is linked to asthma, childhood cancer, and reduced neurodevelopment and cognitive ability.
In addition, every day megacities "grow" larger and larger and people live in constant smog created by the continuous flow of cars and factory work. In the frantic pace of urban life, people do not pay attention to what irreparable harm is done to nature, but, unfortunately, prefer the development of the economy, pushing environmental problems into the background.
In large cities and industrial centers in other countries, especially where air circulation is low, the effects on people are also adverse. Mortality from lung cancer is higher in urban than in rural areas. According to the calculations of American economists, the reduction of air pollution brings significant savings in treatment costs. Great damage from air pollution is caused to buildings and structures due to corrosion, cracking, and weakening of materials. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, the damage to all types of buildings and structures in 45 cities in the United States by the early 1990s was valued at about $600 million. Historical monuments of Italy, Greece, Egypt are also under threat of destruction.
Those who live in highly polluted areas at a young age — when their lungs, organs and brains are still maturing — may also be at a greater risk of developing chronic diseases, including obesity, later in life.
But the impacts of pollution start before birth: Women who are exposed during pregnancy are more likely to have a premature birth or low-weight baby.
“We want to highlight child mortality and the whole range of diseases linked to pollution exposure,” said Dr. Marie Noel Brune Drisse, scientist and expert on air pollution at WHO. “Stunting and development are affecting children before they are even born. The impacts continue really from conception to adolescence.”
“Children are particularly vulnerable to the effects of pollution, but they are politically powerless and depend on us to protect them,” she added.
The latest WHO figures show that pollution causes nearly 7 million deaths each year. But while adults are affected by toxic air, children are far more vulnerable as they breathe more rapidly — and therefore absorb more pollution.
Pollutants also reach peak concentrations closer to the ground, impacting children greatest.
“Imagine that our children will have less cognitive development and therefore a lower IQ,” said Dr. Maria Neira, Director of the Department of Public Health, Environmental and Social Determinants of Health at WHO. “We are talking about putting at risk a whole generations’ IQ. This is not only new but very worrying.”
While pollution is a global problem, it is most pronounced in low and middle-income countries. In Africa, 184 children per 100,000 died from causes attributable to household and ambient pollution in 2016. In Europe’s high-income countries, that figure was just 0.3.
This is largely due to a widespread dependence on dirty fuels for cooking, heating and lighting in developing countries, which can result in indoor concentrations of pollutants.
Roughly three billion people worldwide, including 83% of Africans and 59% of South East Asians still rely on these fuels — including wood and kerosene. As babies and toddlers spend the majority of their time at home, they are often exposed to a higher level of pollution than those over five.
“Low and middle income countries are the ones that suffer most from critical pollution,” said Dr. Sophie Gumy, scientist and expert on air pollution at WHO. “They also have the highest numbers of children. Over 50 per cent of the worlds pollution rely on polluted energy at home — we need to make sure that they have access to clean energy.”
While the report’s authors said parents could mitigate some of the impact on their children by keeping them away from household pollutants, such as wood burners, and above toxic air at a ground level, they said this was not enough.
Published on Monday, the report coincides with the inaugural Global Conference on Air Pollution and Health in Geneva, where world leaders will meet to discuss strategies to tackle toxic pollution. This includes reducing reliance on cars, improving waste management systems, and accelerating the move to clean energy supplies.