The World Health Organization (WHO) has released some new statistics concerning the dangers posed by air pollution. According to the global health watchdog, environmental pollutants – including unsafe water, lack of sanitation, poor hygiene practices, indoor and outdoor pollution, and injuries – claim the lives of 1.7 million children under 5 years old each year. 
These numbers mean that pollutants are the cause of death for 1 in 4 children 1 month to 5 years old.
The WHO says that the most common causes of deaths among children can be prevented via interventions already available to the communities most affected. Insecticide-treated bed nets (to start), clean cooking fuels, and better access to clean water can prevent some of the deadliest child illnesses, such as diarrhea, malaria, and pneumonia.
Dr. Margaret Chan, the WHO director-general, said in a statement:
“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.”
Infants exposed to indoor or outdoor air pollution, along with second-hand tobacco smoke, are at great risk for pneumonia, as well as asthma and other chronic respiratory diseases for the rest of their lives. These exposures often begin in the womb.
The WHO report also highlights the increased risk of heart disease, stroke, and cancer from exposure to air pollution.
In a companion report titled “Don’t Pollute my Future! The Impact of the Environment on Children’s Health,” states that every year:
- 570,000 children under age 5 die from respiratory infections that are caused by indoor and outdoor air pollution – pneumonia and second-hand smoke, e.g.
- 361,000 children under age 5 die from diarrhea, due to poor access to sanitation, clean water, and hygiene
- 270,000 children die during their first month of life due to premature birth and other conditions that can be prevented by access to hygiene, clean water, and sanitation, as well as a reduction in air pollution
- 200,000 children under age 5 die from malaria, which can be prevented by certain environmental actions – reducing mosquitoes’ breeding sites, or covering drinking-water storage, for example
- 200,000 children under age 5 die from accidental injuries attributable to the environment, such as poisonings, falls, and drownings.
Some of the emerging hazards highlighted by the WHO include improperly recycled electronic and electrical waste, such as old mobile phones. These objects expose children to toxins that can cause reduced intelligence, lung damage, attention deficits, and cancer. The United Nations agency says these types of waste are expected to increase by 19% between 2014 and 2018, to 50 million metric tons by 2018.
Global temperatures and carbon dioxide levels are rising due to climate change, the WHO says, triggering an increase in pollen growth that is associated with increased rates of asthma in children. Factors such as air pollution, second-hand smoke, and indoor mold and dampness only worsen the condition in children.
There are things that regular citizens can do to help protect children’s health, such as not exposing kids to second-hand smoke. But the WHO says in its report that multiple government sectors can cooperate to improve the following:
- Housing: Do not use lead paint or unsafe building materials. Remove pests and mold. Use clean fuel for cooking and heating (not coal, e.g.).
- Schools: Provide safe sanitation and hygiene, and a noise- and pollution-free environment. Promote good nutrition.
- Health facilities: Ensure safe water, sanitation, and hygiene. Provide reliable electricity.
- Urban planning: Create green spaces and safe paths for walking and cycling.
- Transport: Reduce vehicle emissions and increase reliable public transport.
- Agriculture: Reduce the use of hazardous pesticides. Eliminate child labor.
- Industry: Safely manage hazardous waste and reduce the use of harmful chemicals.
- Health sector: Monitor health outcomes. Educate the public about environmental health effects and prevention of adverse effects.