More than one in four deaths of children under five years age can be attributed to unhealthy environments and every year environmental risks like indoor and outdoor air pollution, second-hand smoke, unsafe water, lack of sanitation and inadequate hygiene result in the deaths of 1.7 million children under five years, said two new reports released by the World Health Organization (WHO) on Monday.
According to the report, Inheriting a Sustainable World: Atlas on Children’s Health and the Environment, 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 fuel.
Another report, Don’t pollute my future! The impact of the environment on children’s health, showed 570,000 children under five die from respiratory infections such as pneumonia, attributable to indoor and outdoor air pollution and second-hand smoke.
Another 361,000 children (under five years) die due to diarrhoea, as a result of poor access to clean water, sanitation and hygiene, while 270,000 children die during their first month of life from conditions, including prematurity that can be prevented through access to clean water, sanitation and hygiene in health facilities as well as by reducing air pollution.
Also, 200,000 children die from malaria, which can be prevented by environmental actions like reducing breeding sites of mosquitoes or covering drinking water storage. Another 200,000 children die from unintentional injuries that can be attributed to the environment such as poisoning, falls and drowning.
“A polluted environment is a deadly one—particularly for young children. Their developing organs and immune systems, and smaller bodies and airways, make them especially vulnerable to dirty air and water,” said Margaret Chan, WHO director-general.
The WHO reports said harmful exposures can start in the mother’s womb and increase the risk of premature birth.
“When infants and pre-schoolers are exposed to indoor and outdoor air pollution and second-hand smoke, they have an increased risk of pneumonia in childhood, and a lifelong increased risk of chronic respiratory diseases, such as asthma,” the reports added. “Exposure to air pollution may also increase their lifelong risk of heart disease, stroke and cancer.”
“A polluted environment results in a heavy toll on the health of our children. Investing in the removal of environmental risks to health, such as improving water quality or using cleaner fuels, will result in massive health benefits,” said Maria Neira, WHO director, Department of Public Health, Environmental and Social Determinants of Health.
Explaining further, the report said that with 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 5 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,” it added.
The reports also highlighted that children are also exposed to harmful chemicals through food, water, air and products around them. For instance, chemicals, such as fluoride, lead and mercury pesticides, persistent organic pollutants and others in manufactured goods, eventually find their way into the food chain.
“While leaded petrol has been phased out almost entirely in all countries, lead is still widespread in paints, affecting brain development,” the reports said.
The reports advocated that reducing air pollution inside and outside households, improving safe water and sanitation and improving hygiene (including in health facilities where women give birth), protecting pregnant women from second-hand tobacco smoke and building safer environments, can prevent children’s deaths and diseases.
They suggested that the governments can take steps like ensuring clean fuel for heating and cooking, removing unsafe building materials and lead paint, providing safe sanitation and hygiene, free of noise and pollution, ensuring safe water, reliable electricity, creating more green spaces, safe walking and cycling paths, increasing public transport, reducing the use of hazardous pesticides and managing hazardous waste.