With up to 1.8 billion children’s health and development at risk from air pollution, planet must shift away from fossil fuels, UN health body warns
Toxic air pollution is poisoning millions of children around the world and seriously hampering their development, according to the UN’s top health body.
In a sobering new report released today, the World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates as many as 600,000 under-15s died in 2016 due to respiratory infections caused by dirty air.
It calls for a rapid shift away from fossil fuels towards cleaner technologies in order to help clean up the planet’s air and save lives around the world.
The report is not the first time the WHO has sounded the alarm about the scale of air pollution impacts, which it estimates shortens the lives of around seven million people around the world every year. But the scale and depth of today’s report underlines the major impact poor air quality is having on millions of young lives the world over.
According to the WHO, every single day around 93 per cent of the world’s children aged 15 and under – as many as 1.8 billion people – breathe air so polluted it is putting their health and development at serious risk.
The report calls on policymakers to reduce the share of fossil fuels in the global energy mix, invest in improving energy efficiency, and scale up renewable energy sources.
It also calls on government to focus on improving waste management practices to reduce the amount of rubbish burned in communities, and to avoid locating schools and playgrounds close to busy roads, factories, and power plants.
Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO’s Director-General, said polluted air was now one of the leading threats to child health, accounting for almost one in 10 deaths of children under the age of five.
“Polluted air is poisoning millions of children and ruining their lives,” he said. “This is inexcusable. Every child should be able to breathe clean air so they can grow and fulfil their full potential.”
The situation is particularly acute in low and middle income counties, the report states.
It explains how children are more vulnerable to the effects of air pollution as they breathe more rapidly than adults and so absorb more pollutants. Being smaller, children are also closer to the ground where some pollutants reach peak concentrations in the air. Health dangers are further exacerbated by the fact children’s brains and bodies are still developing, the report adds.
Air pollution impacts neurodevelopment, cognitive ability in the early years of a child’s life, and can trigger asthma and childhood cancer, the WHO said. Children exposed to high levels of air pollution can also be affected in later life, as it puts them at greater risk of chronic diseases such as cardiovascular disease as adults.
In addition, when pregnant women are exposed to polluted air they are more likely to give birth prematurely and have small, low birth-weight children, the report confirms.
As newborns and small children are often at home, they are potentially at higher risk of exposure to indoor air pollution if their families burn fuels such as wood and kerosene for cooking, heating and lighting, as is particularly common in lower income countries.
More than 40 per cent of the world’s population – including one billion children under 15 – is exposed to high levels of household air pollution from mainly cooking with polluting technologies and fuel, according to WHO.
However, air quality is also a problem in industrialised nations. In the UK, the government has repeatedly faced court action over levels of air pollution which breach EU regulations.
It has set out measures aimed at tackling the problem, such as implementing Clean Air Zones in some of the England’s most polluted cities.
But in many parts of Greater Manchester alone, levels of air pollution could in fact be worse than previously thought, a study by the Greater Manchester Combined Authority found on Friday.
The report claims nitrogen dioxide pollution is likely to not only be more widespread across the region but also worse than previous UK government estimates suggest.
As such, Conservative think tank Bright Blue is calling on the UK government to use today’s Budget to enable local and combined authorities to generate “reasonable profits” from new Clean Air Zone charging schemes that should then be reinvested in local transport policies.
“In this year’s Budget, the Chancellor should be bold and announce that the UK government will change legislation to enable local and combined governments to strive for reasonable profits from the administration of their Clean Air Zones,” said Eamonn Ives, researcher at Bright Blue. “This could yield revenue for local and combined governments to take further measures to make transport cleaner, such as the introduction of local diesel scrappage schemes and more charging points for electric vehicles.”