Around 93 percent of the world’s children under the age of 15 years – 1.8 billion children – breathe heavily polluted air every day, according to a major new report from the World Health Organization. As a result of the widespread toxic air, hundreds of thousands of kids are dying, falling seriously ill, or suffering from cognitive impairments due to air pollution impacting their neurodevelopment.
"Polluted air is poisoning millions of children and ruining their lives,” Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO director-general, 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.”
Air pollution is among the leading threats to child health, accounting for almost one in 10 deaths in kids under five years of age. Children living in low- and middle-income countries are the worst affected. In these parts of the world, especially Africa, South-East Asia, and the Western Pacific, it’s estimated that 98 percent of all children under 5 are exposed to air pollution levels that exceed the WHO air quality guidelines. Around 52 percent of kids in high-income countries are subjected to levels of air pollution that are considered dangerous under WHO air quality guidelines.
These figures are referring to levels of damaging pollutants known as PM2.5, atmospheric particulate matter that have a diameter of less than 2.5 micrometers (no more than 3 percent the diameter of a human hair). It can be either human-made or naturally occurring, incorporating anything tiny from dust and sea-spray to soot emitted during the combustion of fuels.
Inhaling too much PM2.5 on a regular basis is, obviously, terrible for your health. But it isn’t just your lungs and heart that can take a beating. As this report makes clear, this nasty stuff can possibly lead to all kinds of health problems, including childhood cancers, neurodevelopment issues, and premature births.
Outside air pollution from industry and transports, known as ambient air pollution, is perhaps what you think of when you read about air pollution. However, this report also took into account household air pollution caused by the burning of wood and charcoal indoors, a common problem in low- and middle-income countries.
So, what can be done about this mess? The report was released on Tuesday, October 30, the opening day of the WHO’s First Global Conference on Air Pollution and Health in Geneva. Their aim is to spread awareness of the problem at hand and to provide policy-makers with guidelines to reduce air pollution.
“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,” added Dr Maria Neira, director at the Department of Public Health, Environmental and Social Determinants of Health at WHO.
“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 added.