Polluted environments take the lives of 1.7 million children under the age of five, according to two new reports from the World Health Organisation (WHO).
The Director-General of WHO, Dr Margaret Chan, while presenting the reports, said unhealthy environments were responsible for one-quarter of children deaths.
The reports reviewed the threats from pollutants such as second-hand smoke, ultraviolet radiation, unsafe water and e-waste.
“A polluted environment is a deadly one – particularly for young children.
“Their developing organs and immune systems, and smaller bodies and airways, make them especially vulnerable to dirty air and water,” Chan said.
In one of the two reports, ‘Inheriting a Sustainable World: Atlas on Children’s Health and the Environment’, WHO announced that many of the common causes of death among children aged between one month and five years of age are preventable with safe water and clear cooking fuels.
These common causes of infant death include diarrhoea, malaria and pneumonia, according to the UN health agency.
“The main pollutant is in the air, resulting in 570,000 deaths each year among children under five years old.
“Air pollution can stunt brain development and reduce lung function and trigger asthma.
“In the longer-term, exposure to air pollution can increase the child’s risk of contracting heart disease, a stroke or cancer,” the report stated.
Among other actions described in the other report: ‘Don’t pollute my future!’ WHO recommended measures to counter the impact of the environment on children’s health.
The UN health agency recommended reducing air pollution, improving safe water and sanitation, and protecting pregnant women and building safer environments.
Dr Maria Neira, WHO Director, Department of Public Health, Environmental and Social Determinants of Health, called for measures to protect children from the impacts of exposure to polluted environments.
“Investing in the removal of environmental risks to health, such as improving water quality or using cleaner fuels, will result in massive health benefits,” Neira said.
One of the emerging environmental threats to children is electronic and electrical waste, according to the second WHO report.
Appliances such as old mobile phones that are improperly recycled “expose children to toxins which can lead to reduced intelligence, attention deficit, lung damage, and cancer,” the UN agency reported.
At the current rate, the amount of such waste is expected to increase by 19 per cent between 2014 and 2018, up to 50 million metric tonnes.
The reports also pointed out harmful chemicals that work themselves through the food chain.
These include fluoride, lead and mercury, as well as the impact that climate change and ultraviolet rays have on children’s development.