UNICEF Warns World: 2 Billion Children Breathe Toxic Air

Alarming rates of pollution cause concern for kids’ health.
Two children wearing face masks walk in heavy smog in Harbin, Heilongjiang province, China. (Photo: VCG/Getty Images)
Nov 4, 2016· 2 MIN READ
Sophia Lepore is an editorial intern at TakePart.

Thanks to its link to asthma and other diseases, exposing children to cigarette smoke in a vehicle has become illegal in some parts of the industrialized world, including England and Australia. Concern about the effects of inhaling secondhand smoke is well founded, but a report published this week by UNICEF raises a red flag that what’s coming out of those tailpipes is doing just as much damage to children’s health.

The report, Clear the Air for Children, found that air pollution is so toxic in some places that it has become a major contributing factor in the deaths of about 600,000 kids under the age of five per year.

“Pollutants don’t only harm children’s developing lungs—they can actually cross the blood-brain barrier and permanently damage their developing brains—and, thus, their futures. No society can afford to ignore air pollution,” Anthony Lake, UNICEF’s executive director, said in a statement.

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For the report, UNICEF used satellite imagery to track children’s exposure to air pollution. It found that around 2 billion kids live in areas that maintain outdoor pollution levels that exceed the minimum air-quality guidelines set by the World Health Organization. Of those children, roughly 300 million live in places where air pollution levels are six or more times higher than recommended by WHO’s guidelines.

Children whose families are less well-off are at greater risk of getting sick or dying from exposure to air pollution because they tend to live closer to major highways or in urban areas with more industrial activity. “We really need to rethink how we’re powering our cities, how we’re moving within our cities, and how do we create a way that minimizes emissions,” Adrian Martinez, a staff attorney for Earthjustice, a Washington, D.C.–based nonprofit public-interest law organization, told TakePart.

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UNICEF found that deaths attributed to pollution largely occur in Asia. In recent years, cities in China and India, such as Beijing and New Delhi, have become known for their terrible air quality, and the governments of both nations have taken to booting vehicles off the roads. Growing industrial production and urbanization in Africa leave children on that continent increasingly at risk of exposure to air pollution as well.

“The quantification of how many children are suffering from air pollution is startling, and I see it locally with clients whose children are suffering from asthma and other impacts from air pollution, but if you look at pollution from a worldwide state, it’s really jarring,” Martinez said. Overall, polluted air not only is associated with asthma, bronchitis, and pneumonia but also has been “linked with 1 out of every 8 deaths, globally—or around 7 million people,” said the report.

According to UNICEF, if countries “work to meet WHO global air quality guidelines to enhance the safety and wellbeing of children,” an estimated 2.1 million lives across all age groups could be saved each year. The respiratory health and productivity of millions of people could also be achieved.

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“We have a lot to do to protect our children’s lives, and hopefully this report helps create urgency for action to protect our children,” Martinez said. “It’s going to take a big conservative effort nationally and throughout the world to fix this dire problem.”