1 in 4 deaths among children could be averted by improving environmental factors: UNICEF

Colombia, Mexico have highest number of years of healthy life lost due to air pollution in children under 15

By Madhumita Paul
Published: Monday 30 May 2022
1 in 4 deaths among children could be averted by improving environmental factors: UNICEF Photo: iStock

One in four deaths of children below five globally could be averted by improving environmental factors such as air, water, sanitation, hygiene or chemical use, according to a new report.

Over-consumption in the world’s richest countries is endangering children, the report published by the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) said.

The Innocenti Report Card 17-Places and Spaces: Environments and children's well-being covered the 43 member countries of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and the European Union (EU). 

The following indicators were taken into account to assess the environment children in these places are exposed to: 

  • Exposure to harmful pollutants, such as toxic air, pesticides, damp and lead
  • Access to light, green spaces and safe roads 
  • Country’s contributions to the climate crisis, resource consumption and e-waste dumping

None of the countries studied provided healthy environments for all children on all indicators, the report stated, adding: 

If the entire world consumed resources at the rate of OECD and EU countries, the equivalent of 3.3 earths would be needed to keep up with consumption levels.

Australia, Belgium, Canada and the United States are among other wealthy countries that ranked low on creating a healthy environment for children within and beyond their borders, based on CO2 emissions, e-waste and overall resource consumption per capita, the report said.

Finland, Iceland and Norway were among those that provide healthier environments for their country’s children but disproportionately contribute to destroying the global environment, according to the findings. 

What’s killing children worldwide

In nine of the world’s richest countries, more than 1 in 20 children have elevated levels of lead, one of the most dangerous environmental toxic substances in their blood, the study found. 

Many children are breathing toxic air both in and outside of their homes, the researchers observed. “Colombia (3.7) and Mexico (3.7) have the highest number of years of healthy life lost (per 1,000 children under 15) due to air pollution.”

About 90 per cent of the world’s children — two billion — live in places where outdoor air pollution far exceeds the World Health Organization (WHO) limits

Air pollution was responsible for cutting life expectancy on a scale greater than diseases, wars and other forms of violence, a new study published in the journal Cardiovascular Research on March 3, 2020 showed.

Air pollution across the world shortened life expectancy by an average of three years or 8.8 million premature deaths a year in 2015, according to the study. The findings suggested the world faced an air pollution ‘pandemic’, said the researchers. 

More than one in 12 children in Belgium, Czech Republic, Israel, Poland and the Netherlands are exposed to high pesticide pollution, the report found. This toxicity has been linked with cancer, including childhood leukaemia and can harm vital body systems.

Damp and mould are major environmental risk factors within the home that contribute to upper respiratory infections, asthma and bronchitis. In Denmark, France, Spain, the United Kingdom, Iceland, Hungary and Portugal, more than one in five children were exposed to damp and mould, while in Cyprus, Hungary and Turkey, that number rose to more than one in four.

Rich countries generated electronic waste 53.6 million tonnes in 2019 and this is expected to double by 2035, the analysis showed. E-waste contains hazardous substances such as mercury, cadmium and lead, which damage the human body and brain, taking the highest toll on children.

Safe water, sanitation and hand washing facilities are far from being fully implemented in 13 countries. Most years of healthy life lost were in Mexico (3.8 years lost per 1,000 children), Colombia (3.7) and Turkey (2.7).

UNICEF urged national, regional and local governments to improve children’s environments by reducing waste, air and water pollution as well as ensuring high-quality housing and neighbourhoods.

Child-sensitive environmental policies must ensure that children’s needs are built into decision making and their perspectives are considered when designing policies that will disproportionately affect future generations, the global body added. 

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