Over one in four or an estimated 1.7 million global deaths of children under five years of age each year are due to polluted or unhealthy environments, the World Health Organisation said in a new report today.
Every year, environmental risks – such as indoor and outdoor air pollution, second-hand smoke, unsafe water, lack of sanitation and inadequate hygiene – take the lives of 1.7 million children under five years, the report said.
The report reveals that a large portion of the most common causes of death among children aged one month to five years diarrhoea, malaria and pneumonia are preventable by interventions known to reduce environmental risks, such as access to safe water and clean cooking fuels.
“A polluted environment is a deadly one – particularly for young children,” said Dr Margaret Chan, WHO Director-General.
“Their developing organs and immune systems, and smaller bodies and airways, make them especially vulnerable to dirty air and water,” said Chan.
Harmful exposures can start in the mother’s womb and increase the risk of premature birth.
Additionally, when infants and pre-schoolers are exposed to indoor and outdoor air pollution and second-hand smoke they have an increased risk of pneumonia in childhood, and a lifelong increased risk of chronic respiratory diseases, such as asthma, according to the WHO report.
Exposure to air pollution may also increase their lifelong risk of heart disease, stroke and cancer.
A companion report provides a comprehensive overview of the environment’s impact on children’s health, illustrating the scale of the challenge.
Every year 570,000 children under five years die from respiratory infections, such as pneumonia, attributable to indoor and outdoor air pollution, and second-hand smoke.
As many as 361,000 children under five years die due to diarrhoea, as a result of poor access to clean water, sanitation and hygiene, the report said.
About 270,000 children die during their first month of life from conditions, including prematurity, which could be prevented through access to clean water, sanitation and hygiene in health facilities as well as reducing air pollution.
The report said that 200,000 deaths of children under five years from malaria could be prevented through environmental actions, such as reducing breeding sites of mosquitoes or covering drinking-water storage.
It also found that 200,000 children under five years die from unintentional injuries attributable to the environment, such as poisoning, falls and drowning.
“A polluted environment results in a heavy toll on the health of our children,” said Dr Maria Neira, WHO Director, Department of Public Health, Environmental and Social Determinants of Health.
“Investing in the removal of environmental risks to health, such as improving water quality or using cleaner fuels, will result in massive health benefits,” said Neira.