About 2 billion children worldwide breathe air that exceeds maximum World Health Organization (WHO) pollution guidelines, according to a recently released UNICEF report. And about 300 million kids — almost 1 in 7 worldwide — live in areas with outdoor air pollution readings at least six times higher than international standards.
While the highest concentration of affected kids is in South Asian nations like India, the problem is global. So UNICEF is right to call on world leaders meeting next week in Morocco for a climate-change conference to take urgent action.
“It’s an enormous crisis and it should be a call to arms for the international community,” Ellen Anderson, executive director of the University of Minnesota’s Energy Transition Lab, told an editorial writer. “Because this is not just about the health impact today, but the future potential of hundreds of millions of children,” she added.
Air pollution contributes to the deaths of about 600,000 children under 5 years of age every year, UNICEF Executive Director Anthony Lake said in a statement.
“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,” Lake said.
World leaders should heed UNICEF’s call to protect those most vulnerable by taking four significant steps: 1) Reduce pollution and work to meet the WHO air-quality guidelines; 2) increase children’s access to health care, including immunization campaigns and improving the management of pneumonia; 3) minimize children’s exposure by keeping sources of pollution away from schools and playgrounds and other places packed with kids; 4) better monitor air pollution overall.
Progress is possible, Anderson said. “We know what to do about this ... . We’ve had some really great examples where we’ve turned that level of pollution around.”
The toxic air, and its deleterious health effects, are real and measurable. This is not a future concern, but a clear and present health crisis. Yet it’s good news that steps taken to protect kids can ideally advance efforts to mitigate the disastrous impact climate change could have, too.
“It could be a really great strategy to find common ground across divisive political sides,” said Anderson. “There are win-win solutions.”
No one wins, anywhere, when children are imperiled by irresponsible adult decisions. And the problems of toxic air can’t be solved by one nation — it will require a transnational response. So the worldwide necessity to protect kids should spur a instance of U.S. leaders acting internationally, and allowing the counterproductive partisan split on climate science to subside here at home.