Air pollution has lately become a major global environmental risk to our health and food security. It is also a big threat to the children's health and wellbeing. Almost 300 million children around the world are exposed to toxic levels of outdoor air pollution, and those growing up in low- and middle-income countries are most at risk, according to a new UNICEF report titled 'Clear the air for children'. Based on satellite imagery, in the first analysis of its kind, this report shows that approximately 2 billion children live in areas where pollution levels exceed the minimum air quality standards set by the World Health Organisation (WHO). These data do not account for the millions of children exposed to air pollution inside home. The problem is most severe in South Asia and Africa, which have the highest numbers of children-620 million and 520 million, respectively-living in areas where pollution exceeds guidelines.
The report contains six chapters. Chapter-1 examines the causes and trends of air pollution. Both outdoor and indoor air pollution is a growing problem. Recent estimates indicate that urban outdoor air pollution has risen by 8 per cent globally between 2008 and 2013. Urbanisation, which is often associated with rising air pollution, is increasing too - by 2050 up to two-thirds of the global population is expected to live in urban areas. Unless action is taken to control outdoor air pollution, studies show that this air pollution will become the leading cause of environment-related child deaths by 2050. This chapter indicates air pollution can be high in parts of North America and Europe, but it has improved slightly over the past decade with new environmental regulations and progress in technology. Meanwhile, China and India have been frequently cited as areas where air pollution is at its worst.
The next chapter focuses on the impact of air pollution on children. Air pollution is linked with diseases and infections that kill around 600,000 children under 5 years of age per year. Globally, according to WHO, indoor air pollution killed about 4.3 million and outdoor air pollution killed about 3.7 million in 2012. Air pollution is linked not only with diseases that kill, but also with poor health and morbidity among millions more children. Studies show it is linked with asthma, bronchitis, airways inflammation and even eye irritation. Children who breathe polluted air are at higher risk of potentially severe health problems, in particular acute respiratory infections such as pneumonia. New research is demonstrating that air pollution might also affect cognitive development. The American Psychological Association has stated, "Over the past decade, researchers have found that high levels of air pollution may damage children's cognitive abilities, increase adults' risk of cognitive decline and possibly even contribute to depression."
Chapter-3 examines the unique vulnerabilities of children to air pollution. Children's immune systems are still developing, especially at their young ages. This increases the risks of respiratory infection and reduces the ability of children to combat it. Moreover, the effects of air pollution on a child can have lifelong health implications. Air pollution affects the poorer children the most. Across both developed and developing countries, studies show that poorer families live in areas where pollution levels are higher. Lack of adequate health services and poor initial health makes the poorest children even more at risk. As air pollution has significant negative health implications for children, this report (chapter 4) attempts to gauge the number of children who are exposed to highly polluted air. Air pollution levels tend to be highest in East Asia, South Asia and the Middle East and North African regions. They tend to be lower in North America, Europe and parts of the Western Pacific region. Eighty per cent of people living in the urban areas are exposed to air quality levels that exceed WHO borderline. According to the most recent update (2016), between 2008 and 2013, there has been an 8 per cent increase in global levels of urban air pollution. Improvements, however, were seen in some regions.
Chapter-5 focuses on the wider benefits of reducing air pollution. As this report demonstrates, there are significant links between air pollution and health. But reducing air pollution has wider benefits, including promoting economic growth, fighting climate change and achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). A World Health Organisation study estimates that meeting global air quality guidelines could prevent 2.1 million deaths across all age-groups per year based on 2010 data. Reducing air pollution can also significantly help improve productivity and economic performance. Furthermore, reduced air pollution can also help lower health expenditures at household and government levels -which add up to billions of dollars of savings at the national level. Reducing air pollution will directly influence our progress in achieving the SDGs. Issues relating to air quality are mentioned at four places in the list of SDGs: in the Declaration itself, as well as in three of the SDGs --- SDG 3) Good Health and Wellbeing, SDG 11) Sustainable Cities and Communities and 12) Responsible Consumption and Production.
The last chapter of the report draws our attention to a few actions needed to be taken for protecting our children from air pollution. As a broad framework, protecting children from air pollution requires a four-pronged approach: 1) Reducing air pollution will require a multitude of actions at various levels, from government to households and local communities - including actions to reduce fossil fuel combustion, investments in sustainable energy and low-carbon development policies. 2) Children should be kept away from anything that harms them. Even though the toxic cocktail of chemicals in air pollution is invisible to the naked eye, these elements are deadly and affect children's health and well-being. Minimising exposure includes better waste management systems, and improved ventilation. 3) Providing all children with access to quality and affordable medical care, safe water and sanitation is also crucial to supporting children's health and cutting risks associated with air pollution. 4) Better monitoring of air pollution is needed. Action now needs to be taken across all levels of society - by parents, guardians, school teachers, medical professionals, government policymakers and the private sector. These measures will not in themselves stop the problem of air pollution - but they are necessary and an important first step. The more we know about air pollution, the better we can figure out how to protect children from its negative effects.
The writer is an independent researcher.
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