Pollution is bad news for everybody, but children under the age of five with their young organs, immune systems and brains are particularly vulnerable at that stage of development. Two new reports from the World Health Organization have offered new insights into how serious a risk it poses, finding the the combination of things like the lack of sanitation, unsafe water and air pollution claim 1.7 million young lives every year.
One of the reports, titled Don't pollute my future! The impact of the environment on children's health, takes a look at how a child's environment can impact their health, with more than one in four deaths of those under the age of five attributable to unhealthy environments. Most startling is the finding that each year, 570,000 children under five die from respiratory infections caused by indoor and outdoor pollution, along with second-hand smoke.
WHO notes that exposure to air pollution and second-hand smoke at such a young age not only increases the risk of pneumonia during childhood, but boosts the lifelong risk of chronic respiratory disease like asthma, along with heart disease, stroke and cancer.
But the report considers the environment from all angles. It also revealed that 361,000 children under five die from diarrhoea each year resulting from unclean water and a lack of sanitation and hygiene, 200,000 thousand die from malaria that could be prevented by better sealing drinking water or reducing breeding sites, and 200,000 die from preventable injuries caused by the environment, such as poisoning, falling and drowning.
The other report, titled Inheriting a Sustainable World: Atlas on Children's Health and the Environment, suggests that the most common causes of death among kids in this age group, which are diarrhoea, malaria and pneumonia, could be prevented by improving accessibility to clean water and using cleaner cooking fuels.
It points to a few areas where efforts can be made to improve the outlook in spite of growing electronic waste like mobile phones that are improperly recycled and rising carbon emissions that boosts pollen growth and in turn, asthma rates in children. These include households using clean fuel for cooking and heating, schools providing safe sanitation and hygiene, urban planners creating more green spaces and cycling paths, the transport sector reducing emissions, and the agriculture sector limiting the use of pesticides and child labor.
"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."
Under the UN's Sustainable Development Goals, an initiative made up of 17 individual objectives aimed at ending poverty and protecting the planet, countries are making a concerted effort to reduce environmental risk for children. More specifically, this involves setting targets that reduce preventable deaths of newborns and children under five by 2030, in addition to improving water safety, sanitation and hygiene.