One in seven children across the globe breathes dangerously toxic air, according to a new UNICEF report released today.
Using satellite imagery, the children’s aid organization determined that 300 million children worldwide breathe air six times more polluted than the World Health Organization’s recommended limit.
Rodney Weber, a professor at Georgia Institute of Technology who studies the chemical composition of air, likened that air quality to “being in a room where people are smoking.”
The report showed a total of 2 billion children live in conditions that surpass those limits, but even air that is at or below WHO standards is not absolutely safe.
“There’s no safe level,” Weber told the NewsHour, adding that the probability of a child experiencing adverse health effects goes up dramatically when air quality is at toxic levels.
For children in areas where the quality of air is at dangerous levels, health risks multiply.
“The impact is commensurately shocking,” Anthony Lake, UNICEF executive director, wrote in the report.
“Air pollution is a major contributing factor in the deaths of around 600,000 children under five every year – and it threatens the lives and futures of millions more every day,” he added in a statement.
Children in South Asia are most at risk. About 620 million children there breathe poor quality air, according to the report.
Indoor and outdoor air pollution linked to pneumonia and other respiratory illness is responsible for almost one in 10 deaths of children under five, according to the report.
Children breathe air twice as quickly as adults and their lungs are more permeable, which means that they inhale double the harmful air as their parents and it afflicts them more seriously. The risk of asthma increases with exposure to heavily polluted air as well.
“They experience more pollution per pound of body weight than an adult does,” said Paige Tolbert, chair of environmental health at Emory University.
She is part of a team that researches short-term effects of urban air pollution on children in the Atlanta area
The toxins in the air interfere with brains still developing and children in regions with poor quality air are at greater risk developmental disability, she said.
Tolbert also said that poor air quality affects pregnant mothers as well, and can lead to preterm births. Those born preterm have an even high susceptibility to asthma, she added.
The report recommended that countries in affected areas build infrastructure and undertake policy actions to reduce air pollution, such as switching to cleaner fuels or more stringently regulating the open-air burning of waste.
It also called for greater attention to children’s health and air quality globally, such as implementing low-cost healthcare systems and creating affordable tests for asthma and pneumonia.