Geneva, Switzerland (BBN) – An estimated 1.7 million children between the ages of one and five years die each year due to pollution, the World Health Organisation (WHO) said in a new report on Monday.
Toxic air, contaminated groundwater, lack of access to sanitation and rise in malaria due to climate change are some of the main reasons of deaths.
WHO studied the death of children in two new global reports that linked mortality to pollution.
While one study assessed deaths linked to diseases caused by poor sanitation, hygiene and contaminated water, the other study looked at the impact of air pollution and respiratory diseases on children’s health.
The report, Don’t pollute my future! said that lower respiratory infections are among the largest causes of mortality in children, accounting for 16.5 per cent of deaths under age five in 2012, and 15.5 per cent of deaths in 2015.
The most important environmental risks, it added, are household air pollution from exposure to smoke from cookstoves, ambient air pollution, and second-hand tobacco smoke.
“A polluted environment is a deadly one for young children,” said Dr Margaret Chan, Director-General, WHO. “Their developing organs, immune systems, smaller bodies, and airways make them especially vulnerable to dirty air and water,” she said.
Harmful exposure can start in the mother’s womb and increase the risk of premature birth.
In addition, when infants and pre-schoolers are exposed to indoor and outdoor air pollution and second-hand smoke they have an increased risk of pneumonia, and a lifelong increased risk of chronic respiratory diseases, such as asthma, according to the WHO report.
Exposure to air pollution may also increase their lifelong risk of heart disease, stroke and cancer.
Among emerging environmental hazards, the threat of electronic waste not recycled with due care, is huge.
The improper recycling of old mobile phones and other electronics is exposing children to toxins that can lead to reduced intelligence, attention deficits, lung damage, diarrhoea, and even cancer. According to the WHO report, generation of electronic waste is set to increase by 19 per cent between 2014 and 2018, to 50 million metric tonnes.
Climate change and associated rise in temperatures is also a major concern exposing children to fatal illnesses. It has given rise to breeding of malaria mosquitoes and also pollen growth, which is linked to increased rates of asthma in children.
“Worldwide, 11–14 per cent of children aged five years and older currently report asthma symptoms and an estimated 44 per cent of these are related to environmental exposures.”
While the Union Environment Minister said recently that he would like to act upon Indian studies rather than foreign ones, experts say there is enough evidence to take drastic measures.
“When we go to the doctor for medicine, do we ask if it has been tested on Indians? There is enough clinching evidence to show how our body responds to air pollution. It is wiser to learn and take preventive action. Besides, we already have Indian studies to prove adverse impact of pollution on children. If today, the minister or anyone else is saying that we need Indian studies, we are asking our own people to die to prove it,” said Anumita Roy Chowdhury, Executive Director, Centre for Science and Environment.

5.7 lakh children under 5 years die from respiratory infections due to indoor and outdoor air pollution and second-hand smoke
3.61 lakh children under 5 years die due to diarrhoea, as a result of poor access to clean water, sanitation, and hygiene
2 lakh deaths of children under 5 years from malaria could be prevented through environmental actions, such as reducing breeding sites of mosquitoes or covering drinking-water storages