Almost two billion children across the world live in areas suffering from air pollution levels that exceeds international guidelines, a shocking new report reveals.
Vehicle emissions, heavy use of fossil fuels, dust and burning waste are harming the majority of children on the planet.
While almost one in seven live in areas with the most toxic levels – six or more times higher than guidelines, experts claim.
Dangerous levels of air pollutants are known to increase the risk of asthma, stroke and lung cancer – and scientists have found children are more vulnerable to the effects of air pollution.
UNICEF used satellite imagery to show for the first time how many children are exposed to outdoor pollution that exceeds global guidelines set by the World Health Organization (WHO).
South Asia has the largest number of children living in these areas at 620 million – mainly in northern India, while 520 million youngsters in Africa.
While the East Asia and Pacific region has around 450 million children living in areas that exceed guideline limits.
‘Pollutants don’t only harm children’s developing lungs – they can actually cross the blood-brain barrier and permanently damage their developing brains – and, thus, their futures. No society can afford to ignore air pollution.
‘We protect our children when we protect the quality of our air. Both are central to our future.’
Children are known to be more susceptible than adults to both indoor and outdoor air pollution as their lungs, brains and immune systems are still developing.
Youngsters also breathe faster than adults and take in more air relative to their body weight.
The particles penetrate deep into the lungs and circulatory system where they can cause disease.
The most disadvantaged, who already tend to have poorer health, are the most vulnerable to air pollution, experts say.
But in New Delhi, the capital of India, the alarming numbers are hardly a surprise.
Its air pollution is among the world’s worst and spikes every winter because of the season’s weak winds and countless garbage fires set alight to help people stay warm.
Even days before the city erupted in annual fireworks celebrations for the Hindu holiday of Diwali, recorded levels of tiny, lung-clogging particulate matter known as PM 2.5 were considered dangerous at well above 300 micrograms per cubic meter.
By this morning, the city was recording PM 2.5 levels above 900 mcg per cubic meter — more than 90 times higher than the WHO recommendation of no more than 10 mcg per cubic meter.
Residents were advised to stay indoors, with health warnings issued for the young, elderly and those with respiratory or heart conditions.
Local research has found up to a third of the city’s children have impaired lung function and respiratory diseases like asthma.
‘My eyes are irritated, I’m coughing and I find it difficult to breathe,’ said 18-year-old student Dharmendra, Because of the pollution he doesn’t go out so much nowadays.
But since being identified as one of the world’s most polluted cities in recent years, New Delhi has tried to clean its air.
It has barred cargo trucks from city streets, required drivers to buy newer cars that meet higher emissions standards and carried out several weeks of experimental traffic control, limiting the number of cars on the road.
But other pollution sources, including construction dust and cooking fires fueled by wood or kerosene, continue unabated.
Last week, the city launched a smartphone application called ‘Change the Air’ inviting residents to send photos and complaints about illegal pollution sources, from the burning of leaves and garbage in public parks to construction crews working without dust control measures.
This comes after research last month found more than 90 per cent of the UK’s population are living in areas where air pollution exceeds safe limits.