1.7 million children have tragically died in one of the world’s most recent disasters. The disaster? Pollution. In the last year, at least 1.7 million children have died from pollution-related diseases, and we are to blame…

A quarter of all child deaths

Image depicting city fumesRecent research by the World Health Organisation (WHO) revealed that toxic air, polluted water and a dire lack of sanitation were directly responsible for the deaths of 1.7 million children under the age of five in 2016. The report, Inheriting a sustainable world: Atlas on children’s health and the environment also indicated that most of these deaths were highly avoidable, mainly by providing cleaner cooking fuels to prevent indoor intoxication.

Dr Margaret Chan, director-general of the WHO said “A polluted environment is a deadly one, particularly for young children. Their developing organs and immune systems – and smaller bodies and airways – make them especially vulnerable to dirty air and water”.

As we reported recently with the air pollution crisis in London, air pollution can be held responsible for miscarriages, premature births, and other birth defects. Essentially, air pollution starts its damage in the womb. After birth, pneumonia, heart disease, lung disease, asthma, and cancer are also all linked to heavy air pollution.

How many?

Pneumonia is the biggest threat to children under five, with the respiratory illness killing 570,000 children a year on average. The second most dangerous illness is diarrhoea, which kills around 361,000, and comes about through unsanitary living conditions and a lack of access to clean water. The figures for children dying from indoor air poisonings, such as from burning coal or dung to cook food, are unknown.

270,000 children die during their first month of life, some through prematurity, and others through various environmental factors. As well as this, 200,000 children die from injuries related to their direct environment, such as drowning, falls and poisoning. Another 200,000 die from avoidable malaria.

As many as 14% of children globally can claim to have asthma, a shocking reflection of our air quality levels as a planet. UNICEF even reported that 90% of the world’s children live in places which exceed healthy air guidelines; that’s around 2 billion children. 300 million of these are made to suffer in areas with more than 6 times international guidelines.


It would be the natural assumption that poorer countries are the biggest culprits, which has some truth in it, though more than 50% of first world countries exceed healthy air limits, and the number is growing steadily. Air pollution around the globe kills more than three million people annually, with more than half of those children under five.

city pollutionThe truth is that the third world, with less infrastructure, is higher at risk, though cities brimming with life, transport and business are also incredibly dangerous. Maria Neira, a WHO public health expert suggests a long-term strategy. “Investing in the removal of environmental risks to health, such as improving water quality or using cleaner fuels, will result in massive health benefits,” she is quoted as saying.

Youngsters who live in large cities, close to municipal waste sites, industrial factories or energy facilities are at a greater risk of death.

What can we do for future children?

With increasing global CO2 levels and temperatures, the issue could get a lot worse before it gets any better. All we can do for now is increase awareness, education and begin providing alternatives to those who need them the most. A huge push for clean energy is vital.