WHO Warns That Pollution Is Killing Millions of Children

New reports say that one in four deaths of young people under the age of five can be attributed to the environment

Charcoal Yard
A child stands in the Côte d’Ivoire charcoal yard where his mother works. UNICEF

Everyone knows that pollution is bad—that’s why it’s regulated by national and international bodies dedicated to improving the air we breathe, the water we drink and the world we live in. But just how bad is it to co-exist with pollution? A pair of new reports by the World Health Organization has a sobering answer, and it involves some of society’s most vulnerable people: young children. As The Guardian’s Damian Carrington reports, on Monday the WHO issued two reports warning that polluted environments are responsible for a quarter of all deaths of children under five years of age.

The first report looks at the effects of the environment on children’s health; the second is a detailed atlas of those effects. Both contain alarming statistics on the ways pollution puts children at risk. The agency contends that 1.7 million children under five years of age die every year because of environmental risks like air pollution, secondhand smoke, unsafe water and lack of sanitation and hygiene.

The majority—570,000—die from respiratory infections that can be attributed to both indoor and outdoor air pollution. And another 361,000 die of diarrhea they contract from polluted water or unclean sanitary facilities. The environment can hurt kids in less expected ways, too, as when children contract malaria or dengue from mosquitoes that thrive in places with insufficient waste management or are mistreated by parents with mental health challenges caused or exacerbated by exposure to chemicals like lead.

The numbers are disturbing, but not exactly surprising. As Smart News reported last year, another WHO report with up-to-date air monitoring data showed that nine out of ten people worldwide breathe polluted and even dangerous air daily. A similar report, writes Carrington, found that 300 million children live in places with extreme air pollution worldwide.

Part of the death toll among children has to do with their vulnerable bodies. “Their developing organs and immune systems, and smaller bodies and airways, make [children] especially vulnerable to dirty air and water,” says WHO director-general Margaret Chan in a release.

But children are vulnerable in other ways, too. Those in the developing world, where environmental restrictions are often less strict and sanitary facilities harder to access, are at the highest risk. And high-income countries often inadvertently contribute to the risks sustained by their lower-income neighbors, writes the WHO. For example, e-waste is often shipped to low- and middle-income countries, where it is broken apart by child laborers whose health is then affected by chemicals like battery acid. And even in high-income countries, children of lower socioeconomic status are more likely to live near hazardous facilities.

The good news is that, despite the ongoing environmental threats faced by children, many can be reversed or prevented. The WHO, which is developing a set of environmental targets directed specifically at children, encourages governments to work together to do things like ensure cleaner fuel and reduce emissions.

Will the realization that millions of children die every year due to polluted environments be enough to spur on change? Maybe—and even if it doesn’t change things immediately, better data about the dangers kids face might fuel better regulations in the future.

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