The World Health Organization (WHO) has warned that one in four children under five die each year across the world due to exposure to various environmental risks, including pollution.
The WHO said in two new reports published on Monday that around 1.7 million children under five are killed annually as a result of risks such as indoor and outdoor pollution, second-hand smoke, unsafe water and poor sanitation.
The director general of the WHO, Margaret Chan, said in a statement that the environmental factors were becoming a serious issue regarding the health of children.
“A polluted environment is a deadly one, particularly for young children,” said Chan, adding, “Their developing organs and immune systems, and smaller bodies and airways, make them especially vulnerable to dirty air and water.”
The WHO reports said children’s exposure to risks in the environment could even begin in the mother’s womb, resulting in an increase in the risk of premature birth and life-long health problems. Harmful exposure to air pollutants could increase the risk of chronic respiratory diseases, like asthma, and of heart disease, stroke and cancer, according to the report.
The findings suggested that air pollution and second-hand smoke could be responsible for an estimated 570,000 deaths from respiratory problems among children under five each year.
Poor access to clean water, sanitation and hygiene kills at least another 361,000 children due to diarrhea while unintentional injuries linked to unhealthy environments, including poisonings, falls and drowning lead to a further 200,000 deaths among kids under five.
The reports are in line with efforts by the WHO to highlight the particular environmental dangers faced by the youngest in society.
The new reports said reducing environmental risks could prevent most of deaths from common causes like diarrhea, malaria and pneumonia among children.
The WHO also warned that children can suffer from the consequences of climate change. It said that rising rates of asthma in young people could be attributed to growing levels of carbon dioxide which increase pollen growth.
Last year, the UN health agency published a report that showed one in four across all age groups in the world die each year of environmental factors like air, water and soil pollution, as well as unsafe roads and workplace stress.
– Environmental risks –
Children are more vulnerable than adults to environmental risks because of a number of factors:
- Children are constantly growing. They breathe more air, consume more food, and drink more water than adults do, in proportion to their weight.
- Children’s central nervous, immune, reproductive, and digestive systems are still developing. At certain early stages of development, exposure to environmental toxicants can lead to irreversible damage.
- Children behave differently from adults and have different patterns of exposure. Young children crawl on the ground where they can be exposed to dust and chemicals that accumulate on floors and soils.
- Children have little control over their environment. Unlike adults, they may be both unaware of risks and unable to make choices to protect their health.
Children’s health problems resulting from exposure to biologically contaminated water, poor sanitation, indoor smoke, rampant disease vectors such as mosquitoes, inadequate food supply, and unsafe use of chemicals and waste disposal, rank among the highest environmental burden of disease worldwide. Significant progress in reducing the environmental burden of disease on a global scale can only be achieved through focusing on the key risk factors, through a holistic approach. Comprehensive comparative risk assessment suggests a cluster of eight environmental issues, many of which may concur in the places where children dwell, play and learn. These issues are:
- Hazardous child labour
- Lack of physical activity
- The built environment
- Disasters and conflicts
Children can also be affected by other environmental risks such as:
- Air pollution
- Lack of water and inadequate sanitation
- Disease vectors
- Chemical hazards
- Electronic waste
- Global environmental change
- Emerging issues
- Endocrine Disrupting Chemicals
- Early life opportunities
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Schools in the capital Beijing kept children inside Tuesday after authorities raised the pollution levels to “orange” — the second highest possible.