Environmental Pollution Causes 1.7M Child Deaths Every Year: WHO

According to the findings of a new health report, environmental pollution causes more than 1.7 million child deaths each year, yet most of these could be prevented with simple interventions. 

The World Health Organization released the report, Inheriting a Sustainable World: Atlas on Children’s Health and the Environment, indicating that the top five causes of death among children under the age of 5 were linked to environmental factors, including air pollution and unclean drinking water.

The top five causes of death for children under 5 include respiratory infections, which causes more than half a million deaths; diarrhea, which causes more than 360,000 deaths; premature birth, which causes more than 270,000 deaths; nearly 200,000 deaths from malaria; and unintentional injuries, which cause about 200,000 deaths each year. Unintentional injuries include falls and poisonings.

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The report indicates that more than 1 in 4 deaths of children under 5 are attributed to an unhealthy environment, including indoor and outdoor air pollution, second hand smoke, unsafe water, lack of sanitation and inadequate hygiene.

Air pollution is an especially serious problem considering more than 90 percent of the world’s population lives in areas with poor air quality.

WHO’s report indicates that most of these deaths are preventable with simple interventions.

Access to clean cooking fuels can help prevent indoor air pollution, asthma, and other repository illnesses. Access to safe drinking water can prevent diarrhea. Simple measures like reducing breeding sites of mosquitoes or covering drinking water storage can help prevent the spread of malaria.

Research published last year found that indoor air pollution from household fuels, such as kerosene or diesel, may increase an individual’s risk of suffering a heart attack and dying.

Some studies suggest that exposure to air pollutants increases a child’s risk of diabetes, pneumonia, chronic respiratory diseases, asthma, long-term risk of heart disease, stroke and cancer.

A study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association indicated improvements in air quality improved a child’s symptoms of asthma, bronchitis, and other respiratory problems.

Exposure to many of the risk factors, especially air pollution, begins as early as the mother’s womb. Exposure to air pollution can increase a woman’s risk for premature birth and increase a woman’s risk of having a stillbirth by two percent.

Between 11% and 14% of children 5 years and older currently report asthma symptoms. Approximately 44 percent of these are related to environmental exposures like air pollution. A report published by the International Energy Agency concluded air pollution will kill more than 4.5 million people by 2040.

“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,” wrote WHO officials in a press release announcing the findings.

The study also highlighted improperly recycled electrical waste, such as old cell phones, expose children to harmful toxins that can lead to reduced intelligence, attention deficits, lung damage, and cancer. Electrical waste is forecast to increase by 19% between 2014 and 2018, to more than 50 million metric tons by 2018.

Similarly, harmful chemicals pervasively pollute the food chain. Chemicals like fluoride, lead and mercury pesticides, and others used to manufacture goods, also contaminates food. Lead from paint still affects many children, stunting brain development.

“A polluted environment is a deadly one – particularly for young children,” said Dr. Margaret Chan, WHO Director-General. “Their developing organs and immune systems, and smaller bodies and airways, make them especially vulnerable to dirty air and water.”


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