Author(s): World Health Organization (WHO)
Published: Oct. 29, 2018
“This report summarizes the latest scientific knowledge on the links between exposure to air pollution and adverse health effects in children. It is intended to inform and motivate individual and collective action by health care professionals to prevent damage to children’s health from exposure to air pollution. Air pollution is a major environmental health threat. Exposure to fine particles in both the ambient environment and in the household causes about seven million premature deaths each year. Ambient air pollution (AAP) alone imposes enormous costs on the global economy, amounting to more than US$ 5 trillion in total welfare losses in 2013.
This public health crisis is receiving more attention, but one critical aspect is often overlooked: how air pollution affects children in uniquely damaging ways. Recent data released by the World Health Organization (WHO) show that air pollution has a vast and terrible impact on child health and survival. Globally, 93% of all children live in environments with air pollution levels above the WHO guidelines. More than one in every four deaths of children under 5 years is directly or indirectly related to environmental risks. Both AAP and household air pollution (HAP) contribute to respiratory tract infections that resulted in 543 000 deaths in children under 5 years in 2016.
Although air pollution is a global problem, the burden of disease attributable to particulate matter in air is heaviest in low- and middle-income countries (LMICs), particularly in the WHO African, South-East Asia, Eastern Mediterranean and Western Pacific regions. LMICs in these regions – especially the African Region – have the highest levels of exposure to HAP due to the widespread use of polluting fuels and technologies for basic daily needs, such as cooking, heating and lighting (6). Poverty is correlated with high exposure to environmental health risks. Poverty can also compound the damaging health effects of air pollution, by limiting access to information, treatment and other health care resources.
Children are society’s future. But they are also its most vulnerable members. The immense threat posed to their health by air pollution demands that health professionals respond with focused, urgent action. Although more rigorous research into how air pollution affects children’s health will continue to be valuable, there is already ample evidence to justify strong, swift action to prevent the damage it clearly produces. Health professionals must come together to address this threat as a priority, through collective, coordinated efforts. For the millions of children exposed to polluted air every day, there is little time to waste and so much to be gained.”