A child dies roughly every minute due to air pollution, the United Nations Children’s Fund (Unicef) calculates in a new report—some from the use of indoor wood and dung fires for heating and cooking in developing countries, many others from urban smog traced to fossil fuel use by industry and for transportation.
Dirty air “contributed to 600,000 child deaths a year,” The Guardian reports, “more than are caused by malaria and HIV/AIDS combined.” “Children are far more vulnerable [than adults] to air pollution,” which can produce “enduring damage to health and the development of children’s brain[s].”
The study found that nine in 10 children in the world, some two billion kids, “live in places where outdoor air pollution exceeds World Health Organization (WHO) limits.” Of those, 300 million—more than two thirds of them in south Asia—breathe extremely polluted air that exceeds guidelines by a factor of six or more.
“Another 70 million children living with very toxic air live in east Asia, mainly in China,” the paper adds, where in some cities air pollution has reached staggering levels as much as 56 times WHO safety thresholds.
“The magnitude of the danger is enormous,” said Unicef Executive Director Anthony Lake. “We protect our children when we protect the quality of our air. Both are central to our future. No society can afford to ignore air pollution.”
The WHO has called air pollution the world’s greatest environmental hazard, and one that has worsened by 8% over the last half decade. It estimates that as many as “three million people a year die as a result of outdoor air pollution–six every minute on average,” The Guardian writes, a figure that is “set to double by 2050 as fast-growing cities expand.”
Earlier this year, the WHO raised its concern over the wide range of health impacts from air pollution. “Before, we knew that pollution was responsible for diseases like pneumonia and asthma,” said Dr. Maria Neira, director of the WHO’s department of public health, environmental and social determinants of health. “Now we know that it leads to bloodstream, heart, and cardiovascular diseases, too—even dementia. We are storing up problems. These are chronic diseases that require hospital beds. The cost will be enormous.”
Nor is the danger limited to developing regions. “The air pollution crisis is worst in low- and middle-income nations,” The Guardian observes in its latest report, “where 98% of cities do not meet WHO guidelines, but over half the cities in rich countries also fail to meet the guidelines. In Europe, 120 million children live in areas where outdoor air pollution exceeds international limits, and 20 million suffer levels over double the limit.”