October 30, 2018

Toxic air is 'stunting our young children's brains' warns WHO

A young child in Mongolia, where many schools were shut earlier this year because of air pollution

Photo credit: UNICEF

Pollution inside and outside the home is affecting the development of millions of young children - and killing hundreds of thousands of them every year.

Think of air pollution and you're likely to conjour up an image of a smoke-choked city street packed with cars.

But millions of newborn and very young children around the world are having their health and future potential scarred by pollution every day - often in their own homes.

90% of a child's brain is developed in the first five years. The immune systems of babies and young children are still developing and their lungs are still growing - and air pollution affects that development.

“Air pollution is stunting our children’s brains, affecting their health in more ways than we suspected," said Dr Maria Neira of the World Health Organization (WHO).

93% of children under 15 breathe air that is so polluted it seriously risks their health and development, according to a WHO report published yesterday. Air Pollution and Child Health: Prescribing Clean Air also revealed that 600,000 children died from acute lower respiratory infections caused by polluted air in 2016.

Children play against a smoggy sky in the Iranian capital Tehran

Photo credit: UNICEF

“Polluted air is poisoning millions of children and ruining their lives,” said WHO Director-General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. “This is inexcusable. Every child should be able to breathe clean air so they can grow and fulfil their full potential.”

WHO examined the effects on children of air pollution outside and inside the home in low- and middle-income countries. On very young children, it revealed that:

  • 98% of children under five in poorer countries are exposed to pollution levels above WHO air quality guidelines
  • More than 40% of the world’s population – including one billion children under 15 -  are exposed to high levels of household air pollution, mainly from cooking with polluting technologies and fuels
  • Household air pollution from cooking and outside air pollution cause more than 50% of acute lower respiratory infections in children under five in low- and middle-income countries
  • Air pollution is one of the leading threats to child health, accounting for almost one in 10 deaths in children under five years of age

Pregnant women who are exposed to polluted air are more likely to give birth prematurely and have small, low birth-weight children.

Indian boy Naveen, 12, won an award last year for solving the problem of smoke from cooking fires get into classrooms - ensuring a less polluted environment

Photo credit: CRY

One reason why children are particularly vulnerable to the effects of air pollution is because they breathe more rapidly than adults and absorb more pollutants.

Young children also live closer to the ground - where some pollutants reach peak concentrations – at a time when their brains and bodies are still developing.

Smog forced schools to shut in India, Iran and Thailand earlier this year and late last year.

WHO is holding the first Global Conference on Air Pollution and Health in Geneva today, attended by ministers of health, energy, and environment; mayors; heads of intergovernmental organisations; scientists and others.

Theirworld’s work on early childhood development is supported by the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation.

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