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Pollution kills 1.7 million children, says WHO

One in four child deaths due to environment

Jo Carlowe

Tuesday, 07 March 2017

More than one in four deaths of children under five years of age are attributable to unhealthy environments, according to new data.

Every year, environmental risks – such as indoor and outdoor air pollution, second-hand smoke, unsafe water, lack of sanitation, and inadequate hygiene – take the lives of 1.7 million children under five years, say two new reports from the World Health Organization. 

The first report, Inheriting a Sustainable World: Atlas on Children’s Health and the Environment, reveals that a large portion of the most common causes of death among children aged one month to five years – diarrhoea, malaria and pneumonia – are preventable by interventions known to reduce environmental risks, such as access to safe water and clean cooking fuels.

"A polluted environment is a deadly one – particularly for young children," says Dr Margaret Chan, WHO Director-General. "Their developing organs and immune systems, and smaller bodies and airways, make them especially vulnerable to dirty air and water.”

A companion report, Don't pollute my future! The impact of the environment on children's health, provides a comprehensive overview of the environment’s impact on children’s health, illustrating the scale of the challenge. Every year:

  • 570,000 children under five years die from respiratory infections, such as pneumonia, attributable to indoor and outdoor air pollution, and second-hand smoke.
  • 361,000 children under five years die due to diarrhoea, as a result of poor access to clean water, sanitation, and hygiene.
  • 270,000 children die during their first month of life from conditions, including prematurity, which could be prevented through access to clean water, sanitation, and hygiene in health facilities as well as reducing air pollution.
  • 200,000 deaths of children under five years from malaria could be prevented through environmental actions, such as reducing breeding sites of mosquitoes or covering drinking-water storage.
  • 200,000 children under five years die from unintentional injuries attributable to the environment, such as poisoning, falls, and drowning.

"A polluted environment results in a heavy toll on the health of our children," says Dr Maria Neira, WHO Director, Department of Public Health, Environmental and Social Determinants of Health. "Investing in the removal of environmental risks to health, such as improving water quality or using cleaner fuels, will result in massive health benefits.”

The reports also highlight emerging environmental hazards, such improperly recycled electrical waste (such as old mobile phones), exposing children to toxins which can lead to reduced intelligence, attention deficits, lung damage, and cancer. The generation of electronic and electrical waste is forecasted to increase by 19% between 2014 and 2018, to 50 million metric tonnes by 2018.

In addition, climate change, temperatures and levels of carbon dioxide are rising, favouring pollen growth which is associated with increased rates of asthma in children. Worldwide, 11–14% of children aged five years and older currently report asthma symptoms and an estimated 44% of these are related to environmental exposures. Air pollution, second-hand tobacco smoke, and indoor mould and dampness make asthma more severe in children.

Multiple government sectors need to work together, states the WHO, to yield improvements in housing, schools, health facilities, urban planning, transport, agriculture, industry and the health sector.

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