Pollution kills more than three milion children under the age of five every year

Around the world, polluted air and water and other environment-related hazards kill more than three milion children under the age of five every year.

While industrialization, urban population growth, climate change, the increasing use of chemicals and environmental degradation expose children to risks that were unimagined a few generations ago, it is the old and largely understood basic threats that are still today responsible for killing most children: factors such as unsafe water, lack of sanitation, malaria and indoor air pollution.

Just 10% of the world's population is under five years of age, yet 40% of the environment-related disease burden falls on children in this age group. This is partly because they have a higher intake of harmful substances in relation to body weight, and partly because they have less strength and knowledge to protect themselves.

To illustrate the impact of the environment on children's health, the World Health Organization (WHO) is launching the first-ever Atlas of Children's Environmental Health and the Environment. Presented at the Fourth European Conference of Health and Environment Ministers in Budapest, Hungary, this book brings together a range of facts about the effects of environmental risks to our children's health, which, when taken together, paints a graphic picture of the hazards we all face and the reasons for over three million annual deaths in children under age five worldwide.1

"Children are the main sufferers of environmental hazards. It is unacceptable from every point of view that the most vulnerable members of a society should be the ones who pay the price for failures to protect health from environmental dangers," said Dr LEE Jong-wook, WHO Director-General, on the occasion of the launch.

The United Nations Millennium Declaration calls on governments to reduce by two-thirds the under-five mortality rate by 2015. This may be one of the most ambitious goals. "This is a wake-up call for us and for the world. The number of child deaths is alarming. It paints a dismal picture of neglect. We must face up to reality and act now to work towards a sustainable and brighter future," said Dr Kerstin Leitner, WHO Assistant Director-General for Sustainable Development and Healthy Environments.

Extensively illustrated, the Atlas clearly demonstrates the threats children face everywhere. It underscores the impact of poverty on children's health and the efforts needed to tackle environmental problems. It also discusses the relationship, interlinkages, and impact of the environment on the health of our children. While this crisis cannot be ignored and demands urgent action, success stories show a way forward for the world to make sure that our children will inherit a safer planet and a brighter future.

Health and the environment - some Atlas facts:

  • Unclean water causes diarrhea, which kills an estimated 1.8 million people worldwide each year, 1.6 million of whom are children under five. It's also responsible for many diseases including cholera, dysentery, guinea worm, typhoid and intestinal worms.

  • 86% of all urban wastewater in Latin America and the Caribbean, and 65% of all wastewater in Asia, is discharged untreated into rivers, lakes and oceans.

  • The Ganges River alone has 1.1 million litres of raw sewage dumped into it every minute, a startling figure considering that one gram of faeces in untreated water may contain 10 million viruses, one million bacteria, 1000 parasite cysts and a hundred worm eggs. Diseases which result include diarrhoea, cholera, dysentery, typhoid, guinea worm, intestinal worms and trachoma.

  • Nearly one million children die each year from diseases caused by air pollution inside their own homes. Over 75% of households in most Asian and African countries cook with solid fuels, such as wood, dung, coal or crop waste, which produce a black smoke that, when inhaled, may give rise to, or worsen pneumonia and other respiratory infections.

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