Pollution kills 1.7 million children per year and is behind one quarter of all young fatalities: WHO

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 07 March, 2017, 9:50am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 07 March, 2017, 10:22pm

Exposure to polluted environments is associated with more than one in four deaths among children younger than 5, according to two World Health Organisation reports published Monday.

Worldwide, 1.7 million children’s deaths per year are attributable to environmental hazards, such as exposure to contaminated water, indoor and outdoor air pollution, and other unsanitary conditions, the reports found.

Weaker immune systems make children’s health more vulnerable to harmful effects of polluted environments, the report says.

“A polluted environment is a deadly one – particularly for young children,” says Dr Margaret Chan, director-general of the WHO. “Their developing organs and immune systems – and smaller bodies and airways – make them especially vulnerable to dirty air and water.”

Some of the most common causes of death among children, such as malaria, diarrhoea and pneumonia, can be prevented by implementing ways known to reduce environmental risks and exposure to these risks, the first report shows. About one quarter of all children’s deaths and diseases in 2012 could have been prevented by reducing environmental risks.

Exposure to polluted environments is also dangerous during pregnancy because it increases the chances of premature birth. Infants and preschool children exposed to indoor and outdoor pollution are at a higher risk of contracting pneumonia and chronic respiratory diseases. The likelihood of cardiovascular diseases, cancer and stroke also significantly increases with exposure to polluted environments.

The second report quantifies the problem by providing the number of children who died because of exposure to polluted environments.

According to the report, every year:

570,000 children under 5 years die from respiratory infections, such as pneumonia, attributable to indoor and outdoor air pollution and second-hand smoke - smoke that is released by burning tobacco products, such as cigarettes.

361,000 children under 5 years die due to diarrhoea, as a result of poor access to clean water, sanitation and hygiene.

270,000 children die during their first month of life from conditions that could be prevented through access to clean water, sanitation and clean air.

200,000 deaths of children under 5 years from malaria could be prevented through environmental actions, such as reducing breeding sites of mosquitoes.

200,000 children under 5 years die from unintentional injuries attributable to the environment, such as poisoning.

Exposure to hazardous chemicals through air, food, water and products used in everyday life is also associated with hindered brain development in children. Some chemicals become incorporated into the food chain through fertilisers. Other hazards, such as lead from paint or pollution, can cause developmental delays.

The WHO estimates that 11–14 per cent of children aged five years and older currently report asthma symptoms, with almost half of these cases related to air pollution. It also suggests that the warmer temperatures and carbon dioxide levels linked to climate change may increase pollen levels, making asthma worse.

“Investing in the removal of environmental risks to health will result in massive health benefits,” said Dr Maria Neira, WHO director of environmental and social determinants of health. For example, tackling the backyard recycling of electrical waste would cut children’s exposure to toxins which can cause reduced intelligence and cancer.

In October, the UN’s children’s agency Unicef made the first global estimate of children’s exposure to air pollution and found that almost 90 per cent of children – 2 billion – live in places where outdoor air pollution exceeds WHO limits. It found that 300 million of these children live in areas with extreme air pollution, where toxic fumes are more than six times above the health guidelines.

Emerging environmental risks, meanwhile, such as improperly recycled electronic waste, can expose children to toxic chemicals that eventually affect their cognitive abilities and increase the chances of lung damage and cancer. The report found that electronic waste will increase by 19 per cent between 2014 and 2018.

What can be done to reduce the danger in children? Improving indoor and outdoor pollution levels and water quality, and protecting pregnant women from tobacco smoke can increase children’s life spans while reducing the likelihood of diseases.

Additional reporting by The Guardian