NEW YORK: Unhealthy environments – both inside and outside the home – cause the deaths of more than 1.7 million child under the age of five every year, according to two new reports released by the World Health Organization (WHO) Monday.
Even in their own homes, many children in developing countries have neither clean air to breathe nor clean water to drink, the reports found.
“Almost half of the world’s population is still cooking or heating or lighting their households with very dirty fuels” such as coal or animal dung, Maria Neira, Director of the WHO Department of Public Health, Environmental and Social Determinants of Health told IPS.
Neira described the smoke that children breathe in from these fuels as a “hidden and very pernicious” cause of ill health, leading to childhood illnesses such as pneumonia and asthma as well as longterm health affects such as poor brain development and lower IQs.
In addition to smoke for dirty cookstoves, children are exposed to many other pollutants both inside and outside the home, including untreated drinking water, outdoor air pollution and pesticide residues, the reports found.
For some children, exposure to toxins comes because they work in unsafe jobs such as tobacco farming or recycling.
Neira gave the example of children who help their mothers to “recycle little pieces from electronic waste computers or old televisions from industrialized countries that end up in Africa.” By helping to recover the heavy metals inside the electronic waste, children are exposed to chemicals that contribute to issues, including brain development problems, says Neira.
One way to address the environmental pollutants that children are exposed to is through ensuring that households have access to clean fuels, Neira told IPS. For those families that cannot yet access clean energy, Neira said that proper ventilation can help by “diffus(ing) the pollution caused by this incomplete combustion.”
Access to improved cook stoves that can reduce cooking times and therefore fuel use, can also help, she added.
Even better is access to green energy, which can also help to address climate change, another environmental issue with both current and future impacts on children’s health, said Neira. Climate change will particularly impact the health of the world’s poorest people by contributing to malnutrition and spreading mosquito borne diseases such as malaria and dengue, she added.
According to “Don’t pollute my future! The impact of the environment on children’s health,” 570,000 children under 5 years die from respiratory infections, such as pneumonia, attributable to indoor and outdoor air pollution and second-hand smoke each year, and 361,000 children under 5 years die due to diarrhea, as a result of poor access to clean water, sanitation and hygiene.
A second report titled, “Inheriting a Sustainable World: Atlas on Children’s Health and the Environment” found that many of these deaths are preventable through addressing their environmental causes, including through access to safe water and clean cooking fuels.
WHO Director-General Margaret Chan said that children are particularly vulnerable to pollution because “their developing organs and immune systems, and smaller bodies and airways, make them especially vulnerable to dirty air and water.”