600,000 children die each year from air pollution, says UNICEF

300 million children around the world live in areas with levels of outdoor air pollution that are six or more times higher than international guidelines. Air pollution harms the development of children’s lungs, brains and immune systems.

2 billion children worldwide live in areas where outdoor air pollution exceeds the minimum air quality guidelines set by the World Health Organization (WHO). Of these, 300 million breathe in the most toxic air, six or more times higher than global guidelines.

These are the findings of a recent UNICEF study called Clear the Air for Children, which uses satellite imagery to show how many children are exposed to outdoor air pollution that exceeds WHO guidelines and where they live across the globe.

“Air pollution is a major contributing factor in the deaths of around 600,000 children under five every year – and it threatens the lives and futures of millions more every day,” said UNICEF executive director Anthony Lake in a statement on the study’s release.

“Pollutants don’t only harm children’s developing lungs – they can actually cross the blood-brain barrier and permanently damage their developing brains – and, thus, their futures. No society can afford to ignore air pollution.”

South Asia has the largest number of children living in areas exceeding the minimum WHO guidelines, at 620 million. It is followed by Africa at 520 million children, and the East Asia and Pacific region, with 450 million children.

Outdoor air pollution is commonly caused by vehicle emissions, heavy use of fossil fuels, dust, and burning of waste. Together with indoor pollution, caused by burning coal and wood for cooking and heating, air pollution is one of the leading dangers to children’s health and is linked directly to pneumonia and other respiratory diseases that account for nearly one in 10 under-five deaths.

The findings come a week ahead of the COP 22 in Marrakesh, Morocco.


Image credit: UNICEF/Noorani

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