Environmental risks causing millions of child deaths

A WHO report has found that 25% of the deaths of children under five around the world come as a result of unhealthy environments

More than one quarter of the deaths of children under the age of five around the world are the result of unhealthy environments, according the World Health Organisation.

The organisation said that 1.7 million children under five die every year due to environmental risks including air pollution, unsafe water, lack of sanitation and inadequate hygiene.

Two new WHO reports have highlighted severe environmental dangers to child health with air pollution and lack of access to clean water causing the most damage.

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

The first report, entitled ‘Inheriting a Sustainable World: Atlas on Children’s Health and the Environment’ highlights how environmental interventions - like providing access to safe water and clean fuels - could prevent a large portion of the most common causes of death among children aged from one month to five years – diarrhoea, malaria and pneumonia.

The report illustrates how harmful exposures can start in the womb and increase the risk of premature birth.

It also highlighted the increased risk of chronic respiratory diseases among infants exposed to indoor and outdoor air pollution.

According to a companion report entitled ‘Don't pollute my future!’ every year around the world:

  • 570,000 children under five die from respiratory infections as a result of air pollution.
  • 361,000 children under five die due to diarrhoea, as a result of poor access to clean water, sanitation, and hygiene.
  • 270,000 children die during their first month of life from conditions which could be prevented through access to clean water, sanitation, and hygiene in health facilities.
  • 200,000 deaths of children under five from malaria could be prevented through environmental actions, such as reducing breeding sites of mosquitoes or covering drinking-water storage.
  • 200,000 children under five die from unintentional injuries attributable to the environment, such as poisoning, falls, and drowning.

The report also noted a number of emerging threats – with the improper recycling of electrical and electronic waste resulting in children being exposed to dangerous toxins that could result in lower intelligence, attention deficits, lung damage and cancer.

The generation of this kind of waste is forecast to increase by 19% to 50 million metric tonnes between 2014 and 2018, according to the report.

"A polluted environment results in a heavy toll on the health of our children," said WHO director, Dr Maria Neira.

"Investing in the removal of environmental risks to health, such as improving water quality or using cleaner fuels, will result in massive health benefits."

Ending the preventable deaths of newborns and children under five is one of the Sustainable Development Goals the 194 member states of the UN have set down as a target for 2030.