Over 1 billion children live in homes where solid fuels are used in cooking and heating.

300 million children live in areas with extreme air pollution India among worst
news Air Pollution Monday, October 31, 2016 - 15:37

300 million children in Asia, live in areas where outdoor air pollution exceeds six times international limits, which is the most extreme.

Another 1.22 billion children live in areas where outdoor air pollution exceeds international limits.

China and India – the two most populous nations on the planet - have been frequently cited as areas where air pollution is at its worst.

A comprehensive report titled ‘Clear the air for Children’ released by UNICEF in October 2016, highlights the extent to which children all over the world are exposed to the harmful effects of air pollution (both outdoor and indoor).

Some of the findings of the report are:

Together, outdoor and indoor air pollution are directly linked with pneumonia and other respiratory diseases that account for almost one in 10 under-five deaths, making air pollution one of the leading dangers to children’s health.

Over 1 billion children live in homes where solid fuels are used in cooking and heating. Eighty-one per cent of rural households in India use biomass fuel, for instance, because it is relatively inexpensive and readily available.

In the three countries with the highest child populations (India, China and Nigeria), the number of cars is likely to grow considerably in the coming decades, which will be particularly marked in Africa, and substantial too in South Asia. For comparison, if those countries were to have the same motorization rate per capita as the United States of America currently, the number of vehicles would increase by nearly 40 times for India and Nigeria, and 8 times for China, and this does not account for the growth in population over the coming decades.

The effects of indoor air pollution kill more children globally than outdoor air pollution, especially in Africa and Asia. More than 60 per cent of the population in India continue to use solid fuels in household cooking – contributing to over 100,000 child deaths associated with indoor air pollution in 2012.

Lower-income households tend to have poor ventilation systems, and these ventilation systems can worsen indoor air pollution. One study found that indoor smoke from cooking can be 20 times higher than international limits. A study in Andhra Pradesh, India, found that solid fuel use created a mean 24-hour average concentration of particulate matter that ranged from 73 to 732 μg/m. Guidelines from the WHO indicate that it should not exceed 10 μg/m3.

Poor children are among the most at-risk from air pollution.

Causes of air pollution

Human-made pollutants are caused by fossil fuel combustion, industrial manufacturing, waste-burning, dust from traffic, smoke, and exhaust from automobiles, ships, and airplanes. Fires and brush clearing are also a major source of pollution in the form of smoke and black carbon. Mining operations and use of insecticides and fertilizers in agricultural activities, lead to emission of harmful chemicals in the air. All these contribute to outdoor air pollution.

Burning of solid fuels for household cooking, heating and lighting is a major cause of household, or indoor, air pollution.

Ill-Effects of air pollution on children

Air pollution is linked with diseases and infections that kill around 600,000 children under 5 years of age per year. Pneumonia accounts for up to 16 per cent of all under-five deaths; more than half of childhood pneumonia deaths are associated with air pollution.

It causes miscarriages, early delivery, and low birth weight.

It contributes to diseases that account for almost 1 in 10 of all deaths of children under the age of five.

It can harm the healthy development of children’s brains.

It is a drag on economies and societies, already costing as much as 0.3 per cent of global GDP – and rising.

It causes difficulty in breathing. Studies show it is linked with asthma, bronchitis, airways inflammation and even eye irritation. It can cause wheezing, coughing and phlegm production.

Children breathe twice as quickly as adults, and take in more air relative to their body weight. Their respiratory tracks are more permeable and thus more vulnerable.  Their immune systems are weaker.  Their brains are still developing and they are at more risk of developing acute respiratory infections such as pneumonia.

Ultrafine, airborne pollutants -- caused primarily by smoke and fumes -- can more easily enter and irritate children’s lungs, causing and exacerbating life-threatening disease. 

Studies show these tiny particles can also cross the blood-brain barrier, which is less resistant in children, causing inflammation, damaging brain tissue, and permanently impairing cognitive development.  They can even cross the placental barrier, injuring the developing fetus when the mother is exposed to toxic pollutants.

What measures can be taken to improve the situation?

Children should be kept away from anything that harms them - their exposure to air pollution needs to be minimized. Even though the toxic cocktail of chemicals in air pollution is largely invisible to the naked eye, these elements are deadly and affect children’s health and well-being. Minimizing exposure requires actions by families and individuals, as well as communities and governments. These can include providing better ventilation, as well as insulation, depending on the source of pollutants in homes; the provision of cleaner cookstoves; and preventing exposure to tobacco smoke. They can include greater knowledge and awareness of how to protect oneself and one’s family. Finally, they can include better urban planning and making sure that polluting sources are not built within the immediate vicinity of schools and playgrounds.

Better monitoring of air pollution is required. Air quality can fluctuate rapidly in every environment. For example, cooking or heating with biomass in the home can cause a rapid spike in indoor air pollution. Urban outdoor pollution spikes during rush hour in most cities. Waste-burning tends to be practised at certain times of the day in many places. Monitoring systems can help individuals, parents, families, communities and local and national governments become more aware of how air pollution might affect them, and adjust to immediately prevailing conditions to minimize exposure. These measures will not in themselves stop the problem of air pollution – but they are a necessary and important first step. The more we know about air pollution, the better we can figure out how to protect children from its negative effects.

To support action to limit citizen’s exposure to air pollution, including that of children, the Government of India has expanded air quality monitoring and research. It now provides location specific near real-time air quality data and forecasts for its largest cities. UNICEF is supporting programme partners in Jaipur in measuring the impact of pollution on the breathing capacity of children and advises citizens on the risks of air pollution and how to limit exposure and its adverse effects.

Efforts need to be also focused on reducing air pollution. Reducing air pollution will translate into millions of saved lives, and lead to better, healthier lives for our children and future generations. At the governmental level, actions should be implemented to reduce fossil fuel emissions, and increase investments made in sustainable energy and low-carbon development. These include commitments made as part of the COP21 Climate Change Paris Agreement and Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs). Within communities, better management of community resources, including safe waste disposal, better public transportation options, and information and knowledge on reducing pollution, is needed.

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