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WHO: Air Pollution a Health Risk for Children

The World Health Organization says air pollution kills hundreds of thousands of children every year and puts the physical health and neurological development of hundreds of millions of other youngsters at serious risk. The WHO is issuing a report titled “Air pollution and child health: Prescribing clean air” on the eve of the U.N. agency’s first-ever Global Conference on Air pollution and Health.

The World Health Organization reports more than 90 percent, or nearly 2 billion children under the age of 15, breathe toxic air every day. The WHO says debilitating problems associated with air pollution begin at conception and continue until adolescence.  

The report notes pregnant women exposed to polluted air are likely to give birth prematurely and have low-weight babies. A WHO scientist and expert on air pollution, Marie Noel Brune Drisse, warns that many babies will have neurodevelopment problems, resulting in lower IQs. 

“The fact is that air pollution is stunting our brains, even before we are born,” said Drisse. “The fact that it is leading to diseases that we may not be able to see immediately but look at much later in life like adult diseases. Our lung function and our respiratory systems are being altered during our development.” 

Drisse says this can lead to chronic respiratory and cardiovascular diseases, as well as certain types of cancers later in life. In 2016, the report estimated that 600,000 children died from acute lower respiratory infections caused by polluted air. It said the heaviest toll is paid by children in low- and middle-income countries. The report found that the highest death rates among children between the ages of 5 and 14 from both ambient and household air pollution occur in the African region.

The report says switching to clean cooking and heating fuels and technologies could save the lives of many children. It says other measures for reducing the toxic impact of air pollution include moving away from fossil fuels.

The report recommends the use of cleaner, renewable energy sources, less dependence on private cars in favor of public transportation, and better waste management systems. WHO officials say the benefits from implementing such measures will be felt almost immediately.

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