About 93 per cent of children under the age of 15 years are exposed to highly polluted air that exposes them to major health problems, a new WHO (World Health Organization) report has found. About 630 million of these 1.8 billion children are under the age of five. As per estimates, in 2016, 600,000 children died from acute lower respiratory infections caused by polluted air.

The impact is worse for children in low- and middle-income countries, with 98 per cent of all children under the age of five being exposed to PM 2.5 pollutants – one of the most dangerous types of pollutants – above permissible limits set by the WHO, compared to 52 per cent in high-income countries. In countries such as India, 99 per cent of children under the age of five are exposed to PM 2.5 pollutants higher than WHO standards.

The report, called ‘Air pollution and child health: Prescribing clean air’, examines the effect of both ambient (outside) and household air pollution (HAP) on the health of children.

Air pollution accounts for 1 in 10 deaths of children under the age of five, the report said. HAP and ambient air pollution resulted in more than 50 per cent of acute lower respiratory infections in children under the age of five in low- and middle-income countries. In 2016, HAP was responsible for about 38 lakh premature deaths, or 6.7 per cent of global mortality. This is higher than the deaths caused by malaria, tuberculosis, and HIV/AIDS combined.

One of the many reasons which makes children particularly vulnerable to the negative effects of air pollution is they breathe more rapidly than adults and hence absorb more pollutants. They also live closer to the ground, where some pollutants reach peak concentrations, impacting their developing brains and bodies. Newborns and young children are also more susceptible to HAP in homes that regularly use polluting fuels, such as wood, for cooking, heating and lighting. Pregnant women who are exposed to polluted air are more likely to give birth prematurely and have small, low birth-weight children. Air pollution also impacts neurodevelopment and cognitive ability and can trigger asthma and childhood cancer.

Some of the recommendations include: action by the health sector to inform, educate, provide resources to health professionals, and engage in inter-sectoral policymaking, implementation of policies to reduce air pollution such as reducing overdependence on fossil fuels, increasing the use of renewable-energy sources, better waste management, and taking concrete steps to minimise children’s exposure to polluted air, like locating schools and playgrounds away from major sources of air pollution like busy roads and factories.