School children wear oxygen masks to protect themselves from air pollution in Delhi
School children wear oxygen masks to protect themselves from air pollution in Delhi (representational image) | Getty Images
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Children exposed to pollution have degrading health in the long term, leading them to develop childhood cancer, asthma, and heart disease.

Bengaluru: The World Health Organisation (WHO) released a report Monday about air pollution in the world, stating that 93 per cent of children under the age of 15 breathe toxic, polluted air.

Air pollution is one of the leading threats to child health, accounting for almost one in 10 deaths in children under five years of age.

“Polluted air is poisoning millions of children and ruining their lives,” said Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO director-general. “This is inexcusable. Every child should be able to breathe clean air so they can grow and fulfil their full potential.”

In 2016 alone, the report states, nearly 600,000 children died around the world because of respiratory problems caused due to pollution. The report is being launched on the eve of the WHO’s first Global Conference on Air Pollution and Health in Geneva.


Also read: There’s a 50% rise in heart diseases in India. Blame salt, sugar and air pollution


PM2.5 exposure

Globally, WHO estimates that 93 per cent of the world’s children under 15 years of age are exposed to ambient fine particulate matter (PM2.5) levels above WHO air quality guidelines. This includes 630 million children under the age of five, and 1.8 billion children under 15.

Nearly 98 per cent of all children under five are exposed to dangerous PM2.5 levels in developing countries around the globe. In developed nations, 52 per cent of children under five are exposed to the same levels.

More than 40 per cent of the world’s entire population is exposed to harmful levels of air pollution.

The PM2.5 (or particles with a diameter of less than 2.5 micrometres present in the air) can be a matter of more serious health concern than PM10 (those with a diameter of less than 10 micrometres).

PM2.5 poses greater harm as being finer, it can easily be inhaled into the respiratory tract.

In New Delhi, PM2.5 has reached dangerous levels in the last two weeks. A thick blanket of haze engulfed the city Monday, and an overall Air Quality Index of 348 was recorded, which falls in the very poor category, according to data of the Central Pollution Control Board.

Why children are at great risk

The report makes startling claims about several matters that have been made more urgent by the global warming crisis.

It addresses the lack of full neurodevelopment, leading to bad motor skill development in kids. Affected children also tend to perform badly in cognitive tests.

There are several reasons why children are vulnerable to pollution. Considering they haven’t reached their full adult height, they are more prone to inhaling heavy particulate matter that could hurt their developing lungs more easily. They also breathe more rapidly than adults in general, causing them to ingest more pollutants. This greatly affects their lungs even at very low levels of pollution.

Children exposed to pollution have degrading health in the long term, leading them to develop childhood cancer, asthma and heart disease.

Even pregnant women who are exposed to pollution tend to give birth to underdeveloped children who are medically more prone to such diseases. In the foetus stage, they are also susceptible to incomplete cognitive development.

Cooking a major factor

One of the main reasons for excessive exposure to pollutants is cooking, the report states. A majority of underdeveloped and developing nations use cooking methods that are significantly higher in emissions.

Using polluting biofuels such as dung and wood causes a drastic increase in indoor air pollution. This also includes fuel used for lighting like kerosene, which rapidly degrades breathing air quality.

The WHO has previously addressed this kind of indoor pollution, calling air pollution a gendered issue which disproportionately affects women and children.

The report states that household air pollution from cooking and outside air pollution combined causes more than 50 per cent of acute lower respiratory infections in children under five years of age in developing countries.


Also read: Long exposure to air pollution can slow down your brain’s functioning, says new study


Global conference

At the Global Conference on Air Pollution and Health (30 October -1 November), world leaders will help tackle this issue at the WHO headquarters.

Expected outcomes include a strong commitment to decreasing air pollution by implementing policies and reforms, and making civic infrastructure such that children’s exposure to polluted air is minimised.

With PTI inputs

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