Almost one in seven of the world’s children, 300 million, live in areas with the most toxic levels of outdoor air pollution—six or more times higher than international guidelines set by the UN’s World Health Organization (WHO)—according to a new UNICEF report.
The report, “Clear the Air for Children”, uses satellite imagery to show that some 2 billion children live in areas where outdoor air pollution, caused by factors such as vehicle emissions, heavy use of fossil fuels, dust and burning of waste, exceeds WHO minimum air quality guidelines. The findings come a week ahead of the COP 22 in Marrakesh, Morocco, where UNICEF is calling on world leaders to take urgent action to cut air pollution in their countries.
Air pollution is a major contributing factor in the deaths of around 600,000 children under five every year—and it threatens the lives and futures of millions more every day. Pollutants don’t only harm children’s developing lungs—they can actually cross the blood-brain barrier and permanently damage their developing brains—and, thus, their futures. No society can afford to ignore air pollution.—UNICEF Executive Director Anthony Lake
According to the analysis, South Asia has the largest number of children living in these areas, at 620 million, with Africa following at 520 million children. The East Asia and Pacific region has 450 million children living in areas that exceed guideline limits.
In the three countries with the highest child populations (India, China and Nigeria), the number of cars is likely to grow considerably in the coming decades, which will be particularly marked in Africa, and substantial too in South Asia. For comparison, if those countries were to have the same motorization rate per capita as the United States of America currently, the number of vehicles would increase by nearly 40 times for India and Nigeria, and 8 times for China. This also does not account for the growth in population over the coming decades. The imperative for green investments could not be stronger.—“Clear the Air for Children”
The study also examines the heavy toll of indoor pollution, commonly caused by use of fuels like coal and wood for cooking and heating, which mostly affects children in low-income, rural areas.
Together, outdoor and indoor air pollution are directly linked to pneumonia and other respiratory diseases that account for almost one in 10 under-five deaths, making air pollution one of the leading dangers to children's health.
Children are more susceptible than adults to both indoor and outdoor air pollution as their lungs, brains and immune systems are still developing and their respiratory tracks are more permeable. Young children also breathe faster than adults, and take in more air relative to their body weight. The most disadvantaged, who already tend to have poorer health and inadequate access to health services, are the most vulnerable to the illnesses caused by polluted air.
UNICEF is asking world leaders attending COP 22 to take four urgent steps in their countries to protect children from air pollution.
Reduce pollution: All countries should work to meet WHO global air quality guidelines to enhance the safety and wellbeing of children. To achieve this, governments should adopt such measures as cutting back on fossil fuel combustion and investing in energy efficiency and renewable energy sources.
Increase children’s access to healthcare: Investing in children’s overall healthcare—including immunisation campaigns and improving knowledge, community management and numbers seeking care for pneumonia (a leading killer of children under five)—will improve their resilience to air pollution and their ability to recover from diseases and conditions linked to it.
Minimize children’s exposure: Sources of pollution such as factories should not be located within the vicinity of schools and playgrounds. Better waste management can reduce the amount of waste that is burned within communities. Cleaner cookstoves can help improve air quality within homes. Reducing air pollution overall can help lower children’s exposure.
Monitor air pollution: Better monitoring has been proven to help children, youth, families and communities to reduce their exposure to air pollution, become more informed about its causes, and advocate for changes that make the air safer to breathe.
van Donkelaar, A., R.V Martin, M.Brauer, N. C. Hsu, R. A. Kahn, R. C Levy, A. Lyapustin, A. M. Sayer, and D. M Winker (2016) “Global Estimates of Fine Particulate Matter using a Combined Geophysical-Statistical Method with Information from Satellites, Models, and Monitors”, Environ. Sci. Technol doi: 10.1021/acs.est.5b05833