Around 8,500 children under age 5 die every year from diseases caused by or exacerbated by outdoor and indoor air pollutions in Bangladesh. Globally the number of child death due to air pollution is 6, 00,000.
The pollutants don't only harm children's developing lungs but also they can actually cross the blood-brain barrier and permanently damage their developing brains, and, thus, their futures. This death figure is alarming and we need to take immediate steps because UNICEF says that air pollution leads to the deaths of more children yearly than malaria and HIV/AIDS.
If we observe the process of early childhood development, we see that it is a critical period for development and maturation of several biological systems such as brain, lungs, and immune system. Air toxics can impair lungs function and neurodevelopment or exacerbate existing conditions like asthma. Infants who were born premature may be particularly vulnerable to additional environmental insults, for example, due to immaturity of the lungs at birth.
There are several biological reasons why young children may be more vulnerable to air pollution. Children's lungs, immune system and brain are immature at birth and continue to develop rapidly until age 6. The cell layer lining the inside of the respiratory tract is particularly permeable during this age period. Children have a larger lung surface area in relation to their body weight, and breathe 50% more air per kilogram in comparison to their body weight.
The process of early growth and development is important for children and therefore is a critical time when air pollution exposures can have lasting effects on their future health. Additionally, children tend to spend more time outdoors doing strenuous activities, such as playing sports, so they are inhaling more outdoor air compared to adults, who spend on average about 90% of their time indoors.
Compared to the inhalation of cigarette smoke during active or passive smoking, the gases and particles in ambient air pollution are relatively weak, resulting in relatively small risks children's health. Outdoor and indoor air pollution together are directly linked to pneumonia and other respiratory diseases that account for one in 10 under 5 deaths, making air pollution one of the leading threats to children's health.
A study by UNICEF reveals that almost one in seven of the world's children live in areas with the most toxic levels of outdoor air pollution which is six or more times higher than international guidelines. The satellite imagery confirms that around 2 billion children live in areas where outdoor air pollution, caused by vehicle emissions, heavy use of fossil fuels, dust and burning of waste exceeds minimum air quality guidelines set by the World Health Organization.
South Asia has 620 million children living in these areas which are the largest number in the world with Africa following at 520 million children. The East Asia and Pacific region has 450 million children living in areas that exceed guideline limits. Bangladesh has one of the largest burdens of child mortality associated with indoor air pollution.
It will also have an impact on women's health and time spent in the kitchen as Bangladeshi women spend six to eight hours a day in kitchen on average. The study also examines the heavy toll of indoor pollution, commonly caused by use of fuels like coal and wood for cooking and heating, which mostly affects children of the low-income groups in rural areas.
To overcome the problem we need to reduce pollution by cutting back on fossil fuel combustion and investing in energy efficiency, increasing children's access to health care, including more immunization programs and information programs about pneumonia, minimizing children's exposure to air pollution by keeping schools away from factories and other pollution sources and using cleaner cook stoves at homes and improve monitoring on air pollution. Therefore, protecting children from air pollution is necessary not only for personal benefit but also for social progress.
The writer is the Deputy Manager, Palli Karma-Sahayak Foundation
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