According to a Unicef report published at the end of 2016, two billion of the world’s children live in areas where the outdoor air exceeds the toxicity limits imposed by the World Health Organisation (WHO), mainly due to pollution caused by humans. Of these 2 billion, almost 300 million children, or 1 in 7, live in an area in which the air is highly toxic, at least 6 times the WHO limits. So what are the consequences for their health?
Numerous areas are affected by high infant mortality
Africa, the Middle East and Asia, as well as Europe and the Americas to a lesser extent, are the continets most affected by air toxicity and its impact on children’s lives. Of the 300 million children who are breathing in extremely polluted air (over 6 times the WHO limits), Europe counts for almost half of them, at 120 million.
“This pollution contributes significantly to the mortality of some 600,000 children under five years old every year and threatens the lives and the future of millions of others“, states the director general of Unicef, Anthony Lake. “Polluting substances not only damage children’s lungs but they can also affect the protective barrier around the brain and cause irreparable damage to their brain development, compromising their futures.”
Using satellite imagery, Unicef have illustrated the areas in the world where the quantity of “PM 2.5”, fine particles with a diameter of less than 2.5µm, exceeds the maximum limit established by the WHO. This air toxicity is essentially due to intensive use of fossil fuels (petrol, gas, coal, etc.) and to the resultant emission of fine particles, dust and CO2. According to the data collected between 2012 and 2014, 2 billion of the world’s children are breathing in heavily polluted air.
The world regions with the highest infant mortality due to air pollution
South Asia is the area most affected by pollution and air toxicity, with 620 million children affected. It is closely followed by Africa, with 520 million children over-exposed to the risk of death due to air pollution, and next by East Asia and the Pacific (450 million) and North and South America (130 million).
In Europe, 120 million children live in areas where the toxicity exceeds acceptable norms for air quality established by the WHO, of which 20 million are exposed to levels of toxicity twice as high as international standards. Exposure to fine particles is higher around large cities.
Poor quality indoor air is also implicated
The Unicef report also warns about the dangers of indoor air pollution caused by the use of coal, gas, petrol and wood for cooking and heating. Together with outdoor air pollution, indoor air pollution is responsible for respiratory diseases (pneumonia, bronchitis, etc.), which causes almost one in ten deaths in children under 5 (4,000 children in Europe in 2012 and 40,000 in Africa).
This is why poor quality air is one of the greatest threats to child health. In 2013, the use of coal and wood for heating homes endangered the lives of over 1 billion children, more than half of whom (642 million) live in Asia, and 352 million of whom live in Africa.
Urgent need for an energy transition policy
Children are the most vulnerable to air pollution because their lungs, brains and immune systems have not finished growing, and their respiratory passages are more fragile.
In order to combat one of the main causes of infant mortality, Unicef have appealed to world leaders to take emergency action in their respective countries to improve air quality and protect those who are most exposed, in particular by:
- reducing the use of fossil fuels
- accelerating the transition to renewable energy
- promoting children’s access to health care
- placing schools and playgrounds in areas far from sources of pollution such as industry and road traffic
- limiting burning