Almost 300 million children live in areas where the air is toxic, according to a new report published by UNICEF. This boils down to almost 1 in 7 of the world's children. In these regions, the air exceeds international pollution limits more than six times.
In millions of cases, toxic air can be fatal. In 2012, 7 million people worldwide died from conditions related to air pollution. Every year, the effects of air pollution kills 600,000 children under the age of five — more than malaria and HIV/AIDS combined.
The study, “Clear the Air for Children,” uses satellite imagery of pollution levels to calculate the number of children at risk from toxic air. The data shows that the majority of children affected by dangerous levels of air pollution live in low income countries, exacerbating the disadvantage these regions already face.
Not only does air pollution increase a child’s risk of dying before the age of 5, it affects their life chances before they are even born. Smoking while pregnant is widely condemned as a threat to child health, yet mothers forced to inhale high doses of polluted air face similar risks. High levels of air pollution are associated with higher rates of miscarriage, premature births, and low birth weight.
Shelter indoors does not offer much respite. Over 1 billion children live in homes where indoor air pollution poses serious health risks. In lower income rural areas, families are reliant on using solid fuels like coal or wood for cooking and heating because they are cheap and widely available. Pollution within households actually kills more children globally than outdoor pollution. That’s why projects seeking to bring clean energy to poor households can literally save lives.
But few people on the planet can escape the negative impact of air pollution. 92% of the world’s population now lives in places that fail to reach health standards set by the World Health Organization. This makes air pollution the single biggest environmental health risk. According to the Royal Colleges of Physicians, Paediatrics and Child Health, 40,000 people in the UK die each year as a result of air pollution. The UK government’s decision to back the creation of a third runway at Heathrow airport has met fierce opposition, as air pollution levels in the surrounding area are already illegal.
Published a week ahead of COP22, one year on from the historic Paris Climate Summit where world leaders agreed to reduce fossil fuel emissions and limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, “Clear the Air for Children” highlights the urgent need to create a cleaner planet for children everywhere.
“We protect our children when we protect the quality of our air,” said UNICEF Executive Director, Anthony Lake. “Both are central to our future.”