Three hundred million children around the world are breathing toxic air, says UNICEF. That’s over 14% of all the world’s kids breathing air that is six times dirtier than the maximum recommended.
It gets worse. Air pollution doesn’t just make you cough, and damage your lungs. Some of the particles are so fine that “they can actually cross the blood-brain barrier and permanently damage their developing brains,” said UNICEF executive director Anthony Lake in a statement.
The sources of air pollution are many and varied. The first thing we think of is factories spewing waste into the air, or vehicle emissions, but around the world, the source is often–literally–closer to home. Indoor pollution comes from coal and wood, used for cooking and heating, or kerosene, burned for light. Together, all these kinds of air pollution contribute to diseases that cause 10% of deaths in kids under 5 years old. And the situation is even worse for kids because they breath twice as fast as adults. “Their respiratory tracks are more permeable and thus more vulnerable. Their immune systems are weaker. Their brains are still developing,” says the UNICEF report.
Much of the report will not surprise you. Pollution is more common in poorer countries; indoor air pollution is worst in low-income rural areas, whereas outdoor pollution is worst in poor urban centers. It follows, then, that kids in poor countries, or poor communities, are the worst affected. Overall, says the report, 600,000 under fives die every year “from diseases caused or exacerbated by the effects of indoor and outdoor air pollution.”
What can be done? Quite a lot, but none of it is easy. It starts at the household level. Parents and other adults should keep kids away from pollution, but that’s hardly practical when they need to do their homework by the light of a burning kerosene lamp, and switching a cooking stove to cleaner fuel is likely to be too expensive for a family than can barely afford the food to cook on it.
Reducing air pollution in cities is another goal, but we’re already having trouble with that. London, one of the most economically powerful cities in the world, has air which kills 10,000 people every year, so our hopes for developing countries should probably be kept low.
Despite the difficulty, UNICEF has several recommendations, and asked world leaders attending the 2016 COP 22 conference to follow them. Theses include reducing pollution to WHO-Recommended levels by, for instance, reducing fossil fuel use; giving kids better access to health care; keeping factories away from schools, not burning trash in places where people live, and otherwise limiting children’s exposure; and monitoring air pollution in order to help the people better understand and avoid air pollution.
It looks like a struggle, but one the other hand, if we can’t even keep the planet’s air clean enough for kids to breath safely, we’ve pretty much failed as a species.