Crores of children choked by air they breathe

Crores of children choked by air they breathe
There should be no mistaking this unprecedented moment in global environmental history. The much-lauded Paris Climate Agreement entered into force on Nov 4, 2016 but it has quickly overshadowed by news of the US presidential election.

Climate change negotiators from all over the globe are gathered in Marrakesh, Morocco for the annual Conference of the Parties - the 22nd  such annual gathering (COP-22) in an attempt to presumably scale up global action on climate change. But, prognostications about the future of Paris Climate Agreement are “up in the air” guesses as the viability of the Agreement hinges upon the decision of new US President-elect Donald Trump.

For the majority of developing countries, this uncertainty regarding the Paris Agreement quite literally clouds a stark and chilling reality about how little has been done in terms of curbing toxic levels of energy-related air pollution. A new report entitled, “Clear the Air for Children” released by the UN Children’s Fund (Unicef) reveals the damagingly tragic cost borne by children, especially the youngest and the poorest amongst them, who are literally being choked by the toxic air they breathe.

This report provides conclusive global evidence of those who suffer most at intersection between poverty and toxic air pollution. Based on satellite imagery of outdoor air pollution, this Unicef report provides for the first time ever, the geographic scope and scale of pollution levels faced by children across the world. The number of children exposed to outdoor pollution that exceeds global guidelines set by the World Health Organisation (WHO) is staggering.

The report reveals that 300 million children, particularly the most vulnerable and disadvantaged, are being crippled by the damaging health impacts of toxic outdoor air pollution. These 300 million children live in areas where the toxic outdoor air pollution exceeds international limits by at least six times.

But the amount of damage from toxic air pollution on children is much more pervasive than previously understood because the report also finds that about two billion children live in areas where outdoor air pollution, caused by factors such as vehicle emissions, heavy use of fossil fuels, dust and burning of waste, exceeds the minimum air quality international guidelines – an annual limit of 10 μg/m3 (the amount of micrograms of ultra-fine particulate matter per cubic metre of air that constitutes a long term hazard) set by the WHO.

Disparities exist in terms of exposure to toxic air pollution. South Asia has the largest number of children living with toxic air pollution – 620 million, East Asia and Pacific region has 450 million children, followed by West and Central Africa - 240 million and Eastern and Southern Africa - 200 million – comprising a total of two billion children living in areas that exceed WHO guideline limits of 10 μg/m3

Air pollution has long been directly linked with morbidity. In 2012, the WHO reported that air pollution was linked with one out of every eight deaths globally – or around seven million people. This made it one of the largest global problems facing the world. Around 6,00,000 of those were children under five years of age globally. Almost one million children die from pneumonia each year and more than half of which are directly related to air pollution.

But what this report argues is that “children are uniquely vulnerable to air pollution – due both to their physiology as well as to the type and degree of their exposure”. There are several reasons for this vulnerability amongst children including that their respiratory airways are smaller so infections are more likely to cause blockages than in adults; they breathe twice as fast, taking in more air per unit of body weight, compared to adults; their lungs and immune systems are still developing, so they are highly susceptible to infections, which both increases the risks of respiratory infection and reduces their ability to combat such infections.

Disruptive development
The report provides growing evidence that air pollution can disrupt physical and cognitive development at all stages of child development. Studies have shown that chronic exposure to high levels of particulate matter (PM2.5 – which consists of particulate matter with a median diameter of less than 2.5 microns, approximately one thirtieth the width of average human hair) is associated with higher rates of early foetal loss, preterm delivery, lower birth weight as well as chronic lung diseases amongst adults and children.

The recent publication from the WHO indicates that urban outdoor air pollution has increased by about 8% between 2008 and 2013 and the future looks bleak for children with under-5 mortality estimated to be as much as 50% higher than current estimates by 2050 as a result of outdoor air pollution. Sadly, income disparities correlate with exposure to air pollution.

Lower income areas which have fewer resources to manage waste, and include the burning of plastics, rubber and electronics are exposed to greater amounts of highly toxic airborne chemicals. Poorer families are also less likely to have resources for air ventilation and filtration systems that can safeguard against harmful air pollution.

While outdoor air pollution tends to be worse in poor urban communities, indoor air pollution impacts worse on rural communities where solid/biomass fuels are more frequently used in cooking and heating due to lack of access to other forms of energy. Some 81% of rural households in India use biomass fuel. Over 1 billion children live in homes where solid/biomass fuels are used in cooking and heating.

Reducing air pollution and meeting global air quality guidelines for PM 2.5 is one of the most important things we can do for children, and these measures also allow for reduction of short term climate pollutants. So will there be global action to protect children or will bilious pollution levels continue unabated?

(The writer is an expert on climate change based in the US)

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