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WHO: Environmental Pollution Kills Millions of Children Every Year


An Indian girls holds a banner during a protest against air pollution in New Delhi, India, Nov. 6, 2016.


From VOA Learning English, this is the Health & Lifestyle report.

Environmental pollution kills 1.7 million children under the age of five every year worldwide. This is according to the World Health Organization (WHO). The WHO warns that child deaths will increase greatly if pollution continues to worsen.

Dr. Margaret Chan is the WHO Director-General. In a press release statement, Chan said, "A polluted environment is a deadly one – particularly for young children."

She explains that "their developing organs and immune systems, and smaller bodies and airways, make them especially vulnerable to dirty air and water."

The most common causes of death among children aged one month to five years are diarrhea, malaria and pneumonia. This is according to the WHO. The organization also says reducing environmental risks can prevent such deaths. This means providing access to safe water and sanitation, limiting exposure to dangerous chemicals, and improving waste management.

Experts say air pollution is the most dangerous

However, of all the environmental pollutants, air pollution is being called the most dangerous.

The WHO estimates that air pollution is responsible for about 6.5 million premature, or early, deaths every year. That number includes nearly 600,000 deaths of children under age five. Most of these deaths take place in developing countries.

However, WHO environment and health chief Maria Neira tells VOA that air pollution is a leveler between rich and poor. Everybody, she says, needs to breathe.

Due to air pollution in Madrid, a traffic policeman wears a mask while directing traffic, Dec. 29, 2016.
Due to air pollution in Madrid, a traffic policeman wears a mask while directing traffic, Dec. 29, 2016.

"You can be a very rich child, your parents very rich, but living in a place, in a city, which is very polluted. And then there is very little you can do because we all need to breathe. So, even if you are rich or poor, you still need to breathe and this is very pernicious. Air pollution is everywhere."

A group of school children walk on street with face mask in Sarajevo, Bosnia, on Wednesday, Dec. 23, 2015.
A group of school children walk on street with face mask in Sarajevo, Bosnia, on Wednesday, Dec. 23, 2015.

Neira says one of the most important ways to reduce air pollution is to produce cleaner fuels for cooking and heating.

"Almost half of the world population is using dirty fuels for cooking, heating, and lighting at home. And, this is affecting very much mothers who are staying and cooking at home, but the children who are around mothers—they are exposed as well.”

She says early exposure to harmful pollutants can lead to increased risk of chronic respiratory disease, asthma, heart disease, stroke and cancer later in life.

Cleaning up how the world cooks, heats and lights homes and other buildings is a big-picture goal. The WHO is advising government departments and industries such as construction and the health sector to work together to clean up the environment.

But what about the here and now? What can individuals do to limit their family’s exposure to air pollution?

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has these suggestions:

  • Avoid walking where there is a high volume of vehicle traffic.
  • Equip homes with air filters and air conditioning units.
  • Limit your time outside if you live in an area that issues warnings about air quality.
  • Wear high-quality rated face masks tightly to the face when air quality is poor.
  • If you live or commute in a very polluted area, remove your clothes and wash immediately after entering your house.

Some of these suggestions, however, may not work for some people -- for example:

  • those living in areas troubled by high levels of pollution,
  • those who cannot stay home from work or school,
  • and those who do not have money for protective equipment.

Therefore, the WHO stresses that governments around the world need to take the lead on ensuring that children grow up in a clean environment.

And that’s the Health & Lifestyle report. I’m Anna Matteo.

Look for follow-up stories here at the Health & Lifestyle report on other ways you can protect yourself and your family against environmental pollutants.

Lisa Schlein reported for VOA from Geneva at the launch of two WHO reports dealing with the effect of harmful environments on children's health. Anna Matteo adapted this story for Learning English, adding addition reporting from several websites. George Grow editor the story.

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Words in This Story

press release – n. an official statement that gives information to newspapers, magazines, television news programs, and radio stations

vulnerable – adj. capable of being physically or emotionally wounded

access – n. a way of being able to use or get something

sanitation – n. the process of keeping places free from dirt, infection, disease, etc., by removing waste, trash and garbage, by cleaning streets, etc.

pernicious – adj. causing great harm or damage often in a way that is not easily seen or noticed

premature – adj. happening, arriving, existing, or performed before the proper, usual, or intended time

leveler – n. something that treats or affects all people the same way

big-picture – adj. the entire perspective on a situation or issue

sector – n. a sociological, economic, or political subdivision of society

here-and-now – n. the present time —used with the

rated – v. to determine or assign the relative rank or class of

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