16 Oct 2018 Blogpost Air

Young and old, air pollution affects the most vulnerable

Air pollution affects the human body in the short and long term, in ways that are detrimental to health. Vulnerable people appear to be most at risk, as highlighted by studies linking air pollution to decreased cognitive performance among the elderly and others suggesting that poor air quality is especially dangerous to children.

A recent report published by UNICEF supports this alarming fact. Using data from Queen Mary University of London, researchers found that children were exposed to higher levels of pollution, particularly while walking to school and on the playground, and that the effects of this pollution were more serious on children than on adults. While the study was carried out in the UK, the data has implications for children around the world.

Lead researcher Abigail Whitehouse says: “These findings are alarming, and it is therefore essential that policymakers provide guidance for parents and introduce targeted measures that address children’s vulnerability during these peak periods.”

“We need to know where, when, how and to what children are being exposed and then put effective mitigations in place to protect them,” she adds.

The World Health Organization reports that in 2016, 6.5 million premature deaths were linked to household and ambient air pollution, with almost 94 per cent of the deaths occurring in low and middle income countries. The problem is exacerbated in urban areas. According to the United Nations Children’s Fund, 17 million babies around the world are breathing toxic air.

A number of factors explain why the risks for unborn babies, newborns and young children are highest. Since children are still growing, air pollution harms them during the developmental stage of their life, causing lifelong health problems. Exposure to air pollution at a young age can hinder lung growth, inhibit brain development and increase the risk of conditions such as asthma.


An additional factor that influences exposure to pollutants is height, especially in urban areas. Because children are shorter than adults, they are closer to the ground and therefore to the exhaust pipes of vehicles. Additionally, young children breathe faster, meaning they take in more air relative to their body weight. The study found that compared with adults, children walking on busy roads may be exposed to up to a third more air pollution. This is a significant finding, especially for the children around the world who walk to school every day.

Air pollution was also found to increase the risk of certain diseases, such as lung cancer, heart disease and acute respiratory infections, notes the World Health Organization. While this impacts people of all ages, babies and young children are more at risk. For example, air pollution can increase the risk of pneumonia, which is responsible for the deaths of almost one million children under the age of five each year, making it the number one killer of children around the world. This phenomenon is most evident in babies and toddlers. In 2016, of all deaths that year attributable to air pollution, eight per cent were children under the age of five, compared with one per cent for children between the ages of five and fifteen.

Fortunately, solutions are readily available. For example, municipalities can establish clean air zones for kids who walk to school and minimize vehicle traffic along certain routes. Globally, air pollution can be reduced by switching to renewable forms of energy and heavily reducing the emissions in the transport sector. Making these changes now is important to ensure that our children aren’t burdened with irreversible health issues that limit their futures.


Learn more about the global #BreatheLife campaign, led by the World Health Organization, UN Environment and the Climate & Clean Air Coalition, which supports a range of cleaner air initiatives that cover 43 cities, regions, and countries, reaching over 97 million people.