Exposure to polluted environments is associated with more than one in four deaths among children younger than 5, according to two World Health Organization reports published Monday.
Worldwide, 1.7 million children's deaths are attributable to environmental hazards, such as exposure to contaminated water, indoor and outdoor pollution, and other unsanitary conditions, the reports found.
Weaker immune systems make children's health more vulnerable to harmful effects of polluted environments, the report says.
Some of the most common causes of death among children, such as malaria, diarrhea and pneumonia, can be prevented by implementing ways known to reduce environmental risks and exposure to these risks, the first report shows. About one quarter of all children’s deaths and diseases in 2012 could have been prevented by reducing environmental risks.
Exposure to polluted environments is also dangerous during pregnancy because it increases the chances of premature birth. Infants and preschool children exposed to indoor and outdoor pollution are at a higher risk of contracting pneumonia and chronic respiratory diseases. The likelihood of cardiovascular diseases, cancer and stroke also significantly increases with exposure to polluted environments.
The second report quantifies the problem by providing the number of children who died because of exposure to polluted environments.
According to the report, every year:
- 570,000 children under 5 years die from respiratory infections, such as pneumonia, attributable to indoor and outdoor air pollution and second-hand smoke — smoke that is released by burning tobacco products, such as cigarettes.
- 361,000 children under 5 years die due to diarrhea, as a result of poor access to clean water, sanitation and hygiene.
- 270,000 children die during their first month of life from conditions that could be prevented through access to clean water, sanitation and clean air.
- 200,000 deaths of children under 5 years from malaria could be prevented through environmental actions, such as reducing breeding sites of mosquitoes.
- 200,000 children under 5 years die from unintentional injuries attributable to the environment, such as poisoning.
Exposure to hazardous chemicals through air, food, water and products used in everyday life is also associated with hindered brain development in children. Some chemicals become incorporated into the food chain through fertilizers. Other hazards, such as lead from paint or pollution, can cause developmental delays.
Emerging environmental risks, such as improperly recycled electronic waste, can expose children to toxic chemicals that eventually affect their cognitive abilities and increase the chances of lung damage and cancer. The report found that electronic waste will increase by 19 percent between 2014 and 2018.
What can be done to reduce the danger in children? Improving indoor and outdoor pollution levels and water quality, and protecting pregnant women from tobacco smoke can increase children’s life spans while reducing the likelihood of diseases.
Climate change also contributes to potential environmental risks by, among other things, increasing exposure to pollen and other allergens, which increases the risk of asthma in children. Of the 11 percent to 14 percent of children ages 5 and older who report asthma symptoms, 44 percent of those are related to exposure to a polluted environment. Tobacco smoke, air pollution and indoor mold worsen asthma symptoms in children.
“The U.S is not immune to what is going on in the environment and this report does an excellent job of tying everything together because we usually think the environment doesn’t impact us, but it does," said Laura Anderko, the Robert and Kathleen Scanlon Chair in Values Based Health Care at Georgetown’s School of Nursing and Health Studies and director of the Mid-Atlantic Center for Children’s Health and the Environment.