Nearly one in seven children worldwide live in areas with high levels of outdoor air pollution, according to a new report from UNICEF.
The U.N. children’s agency says about a third of the two billion children in the world who are breathing toxic air live in northern India and neighboring countries.
About 300 million children, or almost one in seven worldwide, lived in areas where outdoor pollution was highest, defined by UNICEF as at least six times international guidelines set by the World Health Organization.
The warning comes as New Delhi’s worst season for air pollution begins.
The Air Quality Index was 999 in New Delhi Monday. To put that into context, pollution levels are classified as “severe” if the AQI rating is between 401 and 500.
UNICEF executive director Anthony Lake said air pollution was a “major contributing factor in the deaths of around 600,000 children under five every year”, causing illnesses such as pneumonia.
“Pollutants don’t only harm children’s developing lungs — they can actually cross the blood-brain barrier and permanently damage their developing brains — and, thus, their futures,” he said in a statement.
Children face much higher health risks from air pollution than adults. Children breathe twice as quickly, taking in more air in relation to their body weight, while their brains and immune systems are still developing and vulnerable.
The WHO estimates 3.7 million people were killed by outdoor air pollution in 2012, including 127,000 children aged under five.
With two billion children, out of a total of a world population of 2.26 billion, bring unhealthy air, that means the vast majority are being exposed to levels of pollution considered by the WHO to be unsafe.
UNICEF has called nearly 200 governments to restrict use of fossil fuels to give twin benefits of improved health and slower climate change. A U.N.-led meeting will be held in Morocco Nov. 7-18 to speed the transition from fossil fuels to cleaner energies.
(photo courtesy UNICEF)