Pollution kills 1.7 million young children every year, says WHO

A child covered in charcoal dust in the Philippines (Credit: Adam Cohn / Flickr)

More than a quarter of the deaths of young children every year are preventable by reducing pollution, World Health Organization (WHO) officials said on Monday.  According to two new reports, 1.7 million children under 5 years old die every year from environmental risks, including “indoor and outdoor air pollution, second-hand smoke, unsafe water, lack of sanitation and inadequate hygiene.”

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

According to the reports, which are based primarily on data from 2012, basic interventions that are known to be effective, such as access to clean water and cooking fuels, could prevent a large portion of diarrhea, malaria and pneumonia cases – the leading causes of death for children under 5 years.

One of the reports, called Don’t Pollute My Future!, breaks down the numbers further to highlight the scale of impact just a few environmental hazards have on children’s health.

For example, almost 570,000 children under age 5 died in 2012 from respiratory infections like pneumonia attributable to indoor and outdoor air pollution and second-hand smoke. Diarrhea from unsafe water and inadequate sanitation and hygiene killed nearly 361,000 children under age 5 the same year. Malaria – preventable with environmental actions like reducing mosquito breeding sites and covering drinking-water storage – killed almost 200,000 children under 5 years.

Additionally, more than 270,000 children died within their first month of life from conditions, including prematurity, that could have been prevented with increased access to clean water, sanitation and hygiene in health facilities and reduced air pollution.

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As the findings show, the effects of unhealthy environments on children begin in the mothers’ wombs and continues for the rest of their lives – from an increased risk of premature birth to a lifelong increased risk of heart disease, stroke, cancer and chronic respiratory diseases like asthma.

A life in health: the effects of environmental hazards (Credit: “Inheriting a Sustainable World” / WHO)

Although environmental hazards reach every corner of the globe, children in low- and middle-income countries unsurprisingly bear the largest burden of disease, as do children from poor neighborhoods in richer countries.

Children in Africa, for example, bear most of the burden of air pollution-related diseases because their homes lack clean energy sources. They are also the victims of more than 95 percent of deaths from malaria among children under age 5. The burden of disease from lack of access to water sanitation, hygiene falls most heavily on sub-Saharan African and south Asia.

“If you are poor, you are more likely to live in sub-standard housing with limited or no access to clean electricity, sanitation, safe drinking-water, clean cooking and heating methods and experience low education,” the Inheriting a Sustainable World report said.

Unfortunately, climate change and advancing technology means that new environmental hazards are emerging. Electronic and electrical waste, such as improperly recycled old cell phones, are projected to increase between 2014 and 2018 by 19 percent to 50 million metric tonnes. Exposure to those toxins can cause learning disabilities in children, lung damage and cancer. Here, too, children in low- and middle-income countries suffer most as rich countries often ship their e-waste to the poor regions.

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Poor nations are also most vulnerable to the effects of climate change, including floods and drought. However, high income countries are not exempt. As temperatures and levels of carbon dioxide rise, so are rates of asthma in children from the increase in pollen growth. Environmental exposure – including air pollution, second-hand smoke and indoor mold – is linked to about 44 percent of children 5 years and older who currently report asthma symptoms, according to the reports.

Chemical pollution is also an increasingly urgent concern globally, as it contaminates everything from air to water to food. Although lead in paint is no longer legal in the U.S., it is still widespread elsewhere and can have serious consequences on a child’s brain development.

The health impacts of environmental risks on children have actually improved between 2002 and 2012 – from 37 percent to 26 percent – as efforts have been made to address hazards. Significant improvements have also been made in neonatal health, nutrition and communicable diseases.

But, as the reports lay out, the work needs to continue with vigor, as the effects of environmental risks are far-reaching. To illustrate that, Inheriting a Sustainable World walks through the impact of the environment on nearly all the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG), relating to equity; nutrition; water, sanitation and hygiene; energy, air pollution, climate change, chemical exposure and infrastructure.

“The beginning of the SDG era is a great global opportunity for putting renewed focus on children’s environmental health,” the authors wrote in Inheriting a Sustainable World. “The SDG framework emphasizes the multifaceted nature of these challenges, and the intersectoral collaboration that will be required to address these preventable environmental risks, for the sake of our children’s health.”

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About Author

Joanne Lu

Joanne Lu is a South Carolina-based writer and editor dedicated to global development, poverty alleviation and social justice. After a year in Rwanda, she now covers the Asia-Pacific and economics. Find her on Twitter @joannelu or email joanne@humanosphere.com.