Nearly all of the world’s children are exposed to air that fails to meet the minimum standard for cleanliness set by the World Health Organization (WHO), according to a new report from UNICEF. Staggering though it may seem, the study claims that out of the world’s 2.26 billion children, 2 billion breathe unsafe air, with 300 million of these living in areas where pollution is six times higher than the WHO’s recommendation.
According to these guidelines, air containing more than 10 micrograms of fine particulate matter (particles measuring less than 2.5 microns in width) per cubic meter is considered unsafe. The consequences of breathing polluted air can be catastrophic, as inhaling these particles can lead to a range of serious respiratory disorders.
Given that children breathe in more air relative to their body size than adults, and are still developing physically, they are particularly vulnerable to the dangers of air pollution. Their immune systems are also often weaker than those of adults, while their smaller airways mean they are more likely to become blocked.
“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,” said UNICEF executive director Anthony Lake in a statement.
Burning fossil fuels is a major source of air pollution. vladimir salman/Shutterstock
Around 1 million children under the age of 5 die from pneumonia each year, with more than half of these cases thought to be caused by breathing in polluted air.
The report has been released as part of the build-up to the 22nd session of the Conference of the Parties (COP 22) in Morocco, where UNICEF is calling on world leaders to do more to curb air pollution. By meeting the WHO’s guidelines, it is hoped that around 2.1 million deaths across all age groups can be avoided annually.
Doing so, however, will not be easy, as air pollution levels are still rising globally. Toxic air is thought to have contributed to around one in eight deaths around the world in 2012, and a recent study in the journal Nature forecasted air pollution to double by 2050 unless some drastic changes are made.
The major sources of this pollution include vehicle emissions, the overuse of fossil fuels, and burning trash. The problem is particularly serious in South Asia, where 620 million children breathe in toxic air every day, while 520 million African children and 450 million in East Asia are also exposed to dangerously high levels of air pollution.