2 billion children breathing unsafe outdoor air worldwide

As this year’s COP22 international climate conference kicks off this week in Marrakech, Unicef has released a timely report showing the public and world leaders alike that a staggering number of children globally are at serious risk of breathing dangerously polluted air.

Using satellite imagery to identify varying concentrations of outdoor air pollution around the world, the report finds that a whopping 2 billion children live in areas where ambient PM2.5 pollution exceeds the safe limit set by the WHO (10μg/m3 annual mean). What’s more, a huge proportion of 300 million children were further found to be exposed to highly toxic concentrations of pollution, at levels 6 times higher than the 'safe' limit. That’s one in seven children worldwide exposed to an average, ‘Unhealthy’ US AQI of 153+.

Satellite imagery shows 2 billion children breathing unsafe air Source: Unicef

Unicef emphasises the serious hazard that airborne pollution poses to children in particular. Young children are especially vulnerable to the effects of air pollution because they breathe twice as fast as adults, intaking more air relative to their body weight; and their respiratory tracts are more permeable, making them more susceptible to infection, the press release states.

Health risks to young children include increased likelihood of acute respiratory infections such as bronchitis and pneumonia, and aggravation of asthma. In the long-term, exposure can also cause irreversible damage such as limiting lung growth, capacity and function attained in adulthood. The report also points to increasing suggestive evidence that pollutants can negatively affect cognitive as well as physical development, seriously threatening children’s future prospects.

In the face of these daunting statistics and risks, Unicef puts forward some practical suggestions for the leaders at COP22 to address the critical air situation. Investing in energy efficiency and renewable energy, improving waste management and urban planning to minimise children’s exposure, and increasing global air quality monitoring are all actionable suggestions put forward.

At present, there is no air quality data being made publicly available from Morocco, where the COP22 talks are being held.

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