Nature and Biodiversity

Children are dying from air pollution. Here's how we can protect them

air pollution can cause asthma in kids.

Air pollution poses a serious risk to the physical and mental development of children. Image: istockphoto.

Riya Master
Undergraduate Research Fellow, Harvard Medical School
Neha Rana
Undergraduate Research Fellow, Harvard Medical School
Ben Grobman
Medical Student, Harvard Medical School
David Duong
Director, Program in Global Primary Care and Social Change, Harvard Medical School
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  • According to the World Health Organization approximately 90% of children are breathing in toxic air every day.
  • Studies show that exposure to air pollution can lead to long-term health conditions and even death.
  • We outline the key measures needed to combat the environmental health risks of air pollution.

Air pollution negatively impacts children across the world. It adversely impacts our childrens’ learning, health, and overall wellbeing. Children are particularly vulnerable to the health effects of air pollution since they have a faster breathing rate than adults and their smaller bodies result in a proportionately greater air-pollutant intake compared to their adult counterparts.

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The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that over 90% of our children are breathing in toxic air every day. This poses a serious risk to their physical and mental development. A major concern for children is their exposure to traffic-related air pollution on their routes to school. In the US, diesel school buses alone expose children to 3,000 tons of soot and 95,000 tons of smog-causing compounds a year.

Similarly, in Nepal, 69% of students in government schools suffer from health conditions directly related to environmental exposure. In developed and developing countries alike, adults have created a world where the next generation struggles to breathe, and the clean air movement is a matter of life or death for thousands of children globally.

Impact of air pollution on children's health. Source: WHO.
Impact of air pollution on children's health. Source: WHO.

Air pollution significantly increases morbidity from common pediatric conditions such as asthma. Pollution due to automobile traffic alone is responsible for an estimated 13% of global incidence of asthma among children. A 2020 study from Harvard University showed that asthmatic children who lived and attended school closer to major roadways had higher incidence of asthma symptoms, healthcare, utilization, and poorly controlled asthma.

A similar study found that long-term exposure to air pollution is associated with lower mid-childhood lung function. Aside from impairing lung function, fossil fuel pollution leads to reduced birth weight, increased preterm birth, and worsened mental health among children. These negative outcomes are particularly severe among minority children in the US and children in low- and middle-income countries (LMICs).

In the US, Black children have nearly twice the rate of asthma as White children and are four times more likely to die of asthma than their White counterparts. In LMICs, 98% of children under the age of five are exposed to air pollution which exceeds the limits set by the WHO, as compared to only 52% in high income countries. Furthermore, air pollution led to 500,000 deaths among newborns in 2019, 20% of the total global infant mortality. Nearly half of these deaths were in sub-Saharan Africa.

The most significant driver of neonatal deaths from air pollution in LMICs is indoor air pollution (produced through cooking using solid fuels), which accounts for almost two-thirds of neonatal deaths worldwide. These statistics show the urgent need to address air pollution for children globally, especially for minorities and people in LMICs who bear a disproportionate burden of the crisis.

What can be done to improve air quality and children's health?

There are many strategies which can promote air pollution reduction, ranging from the individual consumer to international organizations. With an increase in technology and advancements in transportation, there has been an increase in the push for clean transportation. Though it may seem miniscule, utilizing public transportation, biking, or simply walking is one of the most effective ways an individual can reduce their own carbon footprint and air pollution.

Promoting safe walking routes for children is an important way to reduce their exposure to air pollution en route to school and school-related activities. Mapping out walking routes with minimal air pollution and reduced emissions is an initiative that school districts could implement to help their students lead healthier lives. This is especially important in LMICs, where many children use high exposure methods such as walking to get to school.

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What's the World Economic Forum doing to tackle air pollution?

It is estimated that 1.7 million deaths of children per year can be attributed to environmental pollution. In many LMICs, there is an increased risk of outdoor and indoor air pollution because of limited access to safe and environmentally friendly resources. Unsafe fuel-burning practices using kerosene and biomass, such as animal manure and wood, are necessary for simple stoves. Over 2.5 billion people in the world cook with open fires, drastically increasing the amount of air pollution not only in their households, but in the surrounding open environments. The residual effects of this form of air pollution compounded with air pollution from motor vehicles and many other contributors drastically threatens the health and safety of our children.

Advocating for policies that support the green transition of public transport is a tangible way to get involved in the clean air movement. In the US, school buses account for 90% of the nation's total bus fleet and carry 25 million children daily. Pushing for green public transportation, including electric school buses for children, would significantly reduce the amount of air pollution from transportation. Additionally, the iterations of the Clean Air Bus Program in states like New York and California provide grants for costs incurred by retrofitting school buses; this initiative could be modeled and applied to other parts of the country.

As we conclude COP26 and mark International Children's Day on 20 November 2021, a concerted global effort to guarantee clean air for our children is of the utmost priority. A healthier world necessitates creating a safe and healthy environment for children to grow and learn. The status quo has put this new generation at a significant disadvantage. We need to take action to ensure that every child is able to enjoy their walks to school and games on the playground without facing an increased risk of asthma, cancer, and cardiovascular disease. Our children are dying from dirty air. The time to act is now.

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