Living in unsanitary conditions and exposure to polluted environments are fatal to a great number of small children worldwide, whose fragile immune systems can't cope with the havoc caused by pollutant agents.
Two World Health Organization reports on child mortality rates state one in four children younger than 5 succumbs to air and water pollution, raising the annual death toll to 1.7 billion. Among the prime causes of death in infants and toddlers the WHO cites are infected water, indoor and outdoor pollution, inadequate sanitation, poor hygiene, and injuries.
These findings, published on Monday, March 6 also suggest a great deal of the risk factors can be controlled by affected communities through easily accessible prevention programs. By managing life-threatening risks and reducing exposure to environmental pollution, most major death causes that commonly affect children - such as pneumonia, malaria and diarrhea - could be inhibited.
Exposure to environmental hazards can start as early as pregnancy, leading in many cases to premature birth. The WHO advises parents to take all precautions in shielding children against indoor and outdoor pollution, since babies and kindergartners who live in polluted environments are more vulnerable to a lifelong risk of pneumonia, chronic respiratory diseases, heart diseases, stroke, and cancer.
Alarming Statistics Point Out Most Common Dangers
One of the two reports highlights the top five causes of death among children aged 1 month to 5 years, and their connection with environmental risk factors. Air pollution ranks first as the most dangerous, leading to widespread respiratory infections - one example being pneumonia. Along with exposure to secondhand smoke, breathing in contaminated air amounts to 570,000 child deaths every year.
The WHO also estimates unsafe water and substandard hygiene conditions are responsible for another 361,000 deaths annually, typically occurring because of diarrhea. The report further reveals 270,000 infants die in their first month from conditions related to water pollution and poor sanitation, including being born prematurely.
Each year, 200,000 children's lives are lost to malaria, while poisoning and other accidental injuries linked to environmental hazards are accountable for the same number of deaths in children younger than 5.
Another public health concern is the improper recycling of electronic and electrical waste, which releases toxins into the environment and puts children at harm, increasing the likelihood of attention deficits, reduced intelligence, lung diseases, and cancer.
Additional threats come from chemicals ingested through food, water, air, and the use of common household products that contain lead, fluoride, and mercury pesticides. Climate change is also to blame for the high rate of respiratory diseases, pollen growth, and rising carbon dioxide levels accounting for asthma symptoms in 11-14 percent of kids under 5.
WHO Calls For Preventative Actions That Could Save Millions
According to another WHO report, a lot of the damage could be fixed by facilitating access to clean water and sanitation in these communities. Indoor pollution could be hampered by popularizing the use of non-contaminating kitchen fuels, whereas the surge in malaria cases could be curtailed through reducing mosquito breeding sites and treating bed nets with insect repellents.
"Investing in the removal of environmental risks to health, such as improving water quality or using cleaner fuels, will result in massive health benefits," advises Dr. Maria Neira, director of the WHO's Department of Public Health, Environmental and Social Determinants of Health.
Other possible solutions to minimizing environmental risk factors include:
• Restricting the use of unsafe building materials
• Eradicating mold and pests
• Promoting hygiene and good nutrition in schools
• Providing access to reliable electricity
• Expanding the number of green spaces in residential areas
• Improving the public transportation system by reducing toxic emissions
• Turning to pesticide-free agricultural practices
• Decreasing the spread of harmful industrial chemicals through the responsible management of hazardous waste
Environmental pollution is not the sole culprit when it comes to child mortality rates, however.
"To prevent deaths from pneumonia, we also need vaccines and antibiotics; from malaria, we also need bed nets and anti-malarials," states Joy Lawn, professor of child health epidemiology at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.