Preventable Environmental Hazards Are Killing 1.7 Million Kids Each Year

In the first report of its kind, the World Health Organization has published some horrendous statistics: every year, more than one-million children under the age of five are dying as a direct result of hazards in our environment. That figure translates to roughly 25% of all deaths of children in that age group, a staggering number made all the more troubling when one considers how relatively preventable the deaths are.

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At fault are pollutants like second-hand smoke and air pollution, chemicals that make things like drinking water toxic, and lack of access to proper hygiene and sanitary options. As one of the two WHO reports in question reads, “a large portion of the most common causes of death among children aged 1 month to 5 years – diarrhea, malaria and pneumonia – are preventable by interventions known to reduce environmental risks, such as access to safe water and clean cooking fuels.” Small children are particularly susceptible to such factors due to “their developing organs and immune systems, and smaller bodies and airways,” a biological predicament compounded when living in poor and desolate places.

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Exposure to such harm can begin in the womb, for example if a mother works in an unsanitary factory. Sometimes, the children are exposed by filthy indoor and outdoor air, which then leads to higher risk for diseases like pneumonia and “a lifelong increased risk of chronic respiratory diseases, such as asthma. Exposure to air pollution may also increase their lifelong risk of heart disease, stroke and cancer.” WHO included a numerical breakdown of that 1.7 million figure, which is as follows:

  • 570,000 children under five years die from respiratory infections, such as pneumonia, attributable to indoor and outdoor air pollution, and second-hand smoke.
  • 361,000 children under five years die due to diarrhea, as a result of poor access to clean water, sanitation, and hygiene.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 200,000 children under years die from unintentional injuries attributable to the environment, such as poisoning, falls, and drowning.

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Even our mobile technology is killing children. “Emerging environmental hazards, such as electronic and electrical waste (such as old mobile phones) that is improperly recycled, expose children to toxins which can lead to reduced intelligence, attention deficits, lung damage, and cancer,” reads the report. Of course, climate change is also a major factor in the high death rate for kids. Spikes in rates of asthma can be attributed to rising temperatures and increased levels of carbon dioxide in the air, a combination that can spur pollen growth. “Worldwide, 11–14% of children aged 5 years and older currently report asthma symptoms and an estimated 44% of these are related to environmental exposures,” WHO states.

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“Children are also exposed to harmful chemicals through food, water, air and products around them,” the report states before listing such chemicals as “fluoride, lead and mercury pesticides, persistent organic pollutants, and others in manufactured goods,” much of which “eventually find their way into the food chain.” Furthermore, lead paint continues to be an issue plaguing millions, affecting brain development in those exposed.

The WHO suggests that world governments take a more active role in protecting their youngest citizens, putting forth the following suggestions for remediation:

  • Housing: Ensure clean fuel for heating and cooking, no mould or pests, and remove unsafe building materials and lead paint.
  • Schools: Provide safe sanitation and hygiene, free of noise, pollution, and promote good nutrition.
  • Health facilities: Ensure safe water, sanitation and hygiene, and reliable electricity.
  • Urban planning: Create more green spaces, safe walking and cycling paths.
  • Transport: Reduce emissions and increase public transport.
  • Agriculture: Reduce the use of hazardous pesticides and no child labour.
  • Industry: Manage hazardous waste and reduce the use of harmful chemicals.
  • Health sector: Monitor health outcomes and educate about environmental health effects and prevention.

Read the WHO’s full release on its reports, “The cost of a polluted environment: 1.7 million child deaths a year.”

NPR, in reporting on the WHO’s findings, included a particularly chilling implication for Americans. Maria Neira, WHO’s public health and environment department director and lead author on the reports warns, “People in Washington are talking about relaxing regulations, and they’re not acknowledging — maybe they don’t know — allowing waterways and the air to become polluted will result in death.”