The cost of a polluted environment: 1.7 million child deaths a year
by World Health Organization
6 March 2017
More than 1 in 4 deaths of children under 5 years of are attributable to unhealthy environments. Every year, environmental risks – such as indoor and outdoor air pollution, second-hand smoke, unsafe water, lack of sanitation, and inadequate hygiene – take the lives of 1.7 million children under 5 years, say two new WHO reports.
The first report, Inheriting a Sustainable World: Atlas on Children’s Health and the Environment reveals that a large portion of the most common causes of death among children aged 1 month to 5 years – diarrhoea, malaria and pneumonia – are preventable by interventions known to reduce environmental risks, such as access to safe water and clean cooking fuels.
"A polluted environment is a deadly one – particularly for young children," says Dr Margaret Chan, WHO Director-General. "Their developing organs and immune systems, and smaller bodies and airways, make them especially vulnerable to dirty air and water."
Harmful exposures can start in the mother’s womb and increase the risk of premature birth. Additionally, when infants and pre-schoolers are exposed to indoor and outdoor air pollution and second-hand smoke they have an increased risk of pneumonia in childhood, and a lifelong increased risk of chronic respiratory diseases, such as asthma. Exposure to air pollution may also increase their lifelong risk of heart disease, stroke and cancer.
A companion report, Don''t pollute my future! The impact of the environment on children''s health, provides a comprehensive overview of the environment’s impact on children’s health, illustrating the scale of the challenge. Every year:
570,000 children under 5 years die from respiratory infections, such as pneumonia, attributable to indoor and outdoor air pollution, and second-hand smoke.
361,000 children under 5 years die due to diarrhoea, as a result of poor access to clean water, sanitation, and hygiene.
270,000 children die during their first month of life from conditions, including prematurity, which could be prevented through access to clean water, sanitation, and hygiene in health facilities as well as reducing air pollution.
200,000 deaths of children under 5 years from malaria could be prevented through environmental actions, such as reducing breeding sites of mosquitoes or covering drinking-water storage.
200,000 children under 5 years die from unintentional injuries attributable to the environment, such as poisoning, falls, and drowning.
"A polluted environment results in a heavy toll on the health of our children," says Dr Maria Neira, WHO Director, Department of Public Health, Environmental and Social Determinants of Health. "Investing in the removal of environmental risks to health, such as improving water quality or using cleaner fuels, will result in massive health benefits."
For example, emerging environmental hazards, such as electronic and electrical waste (such as old mobile phones) that is improperly recycled, expose children to toxins which can lead to reduced intelligence, attention deficits, lung damage, and cancer. The generation of electronic and electrical waste is forecasted to increase by 19% between 2014 and 2018, to 50 million metric tonnes by 2018.
With climate change, temperatures and levels of carbon dioxide are rising, favouring pollen growth which is associated with increased rates of asthma in children. Worldwide, 11–14% of children aged 5 years and older currently report asthma symptoms and an estimated 44% of these are related to environmental exposures. Air pollution, second-hand tobacco smoke, and indoor mould and dampness make asthma more severe in children.
In households without access to basic services, such as safe water and sanitation, or that are smoky due to the use of unclean fuels, such as coal or dung for cooking and heating, children are at an increased risk of diarrhoea and pneumonia.
Children are also exposed to harmful chemicals through food, water, air and products around them. Chemicals, such as fluoride, lead and mercury pesticides, persistent organic pollutants, and others in manufactured goods, eventually find their way into the food chain. And, while leaded petrol has been phased out almost entirely in all countries, lead is still widespread in paints, affecting brain development.
Reducing air pollution inside and outside households, improving safe water and sanitation and improving hygiene (including in health facilities where women give birth), protecting pregnant women from second-hand tobacco smoke, and building safer environments, can prevent children’s deaths and diseases.
For example, multiple government sectors can work together to improve the following:
Housing: Ensure clean fuel for heating and cooking, no mould or pests, and remove unsafe building materials and lead paint.
Schools: Provide safe sanitation and hygiene, free of noise, pollution, and promote good nutrition.
Health facilities: Ensure safe water, sanitation and hygiene, and reliable electricity.
Urban planning: Create more green spaces, safe walking and cycling paths.
Transport: Reduce emissions and increase public transport.
Agriculture: Reduce the use of hazardous pesticides and no child labour.
Industry: Manage hazardous waste and reduce the use of harmful chemicals.
Health sector: Monitor health outcomes and educate about environmental health effects and prevention.
Under the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) countries are working on a set of targets to guide interventions for children’s environmental health, as well as to end preventable deaths of newborns and children under five by 2030. In addition to SDG 3, which aims to ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all, other SDGs work to improve water, sanitation and hygiene, transition to clean energy to reduce air pollution, and reverse climate change – all of which will have an impact on children’s health.
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Here comes the sun: chilling verdict on a climate going to extremes
by James Hansen
The Washington Post & agencies
When I testified before the US Senate in the hot summer of 1988, I warned of the kind of future that climate change would bring to us and our planet. I painted a grim picture of the consequences of steadily increasing temperatures, driven by mankind"s use of fossil fuels. But I have a confession to make: I was too optimistic.
My projections about increasing global temperature have been proved true. But I failed to fully explore how quickly that average rise would drive an increase in extreme weather.
In a new analysis of the past six decades of global temperatures, my colleagues and I have revealed a stunning increase in the frequency of extremely hot summers, with deeply troubling ramifications for not only our future but also for our present.
This is not a climate model or a prediction but actual observations of weather events and temperatures that have happened. Our analysis shows it is no longer enough to say global warming will increase the likelihood of extreme weather and to repeat the caveat that no individual weather event can be directly linked to climate change. To the contrary, our analysis shows that, for the extreme hot weather of the recent past, there is virtually no explanation other than climate change.
The deadly European heatwave of 2003, the fiery Russian heatwave of 2010 and catastrophic droughts in Texas and Oklahoma last year can each be attributed to climate change. And once the data is gathered in a few weeks time, it"s likely that the same will be true for the extremely hot summer the US is suffering.
The odds that natural variability created these extremes are minuscule, vanishingly small. To count on those odds would be like quitting your job and playing the lottery every morning to pay the bills.
Years ago, I introduced the concept of "climate dice" to help distinguish the long-term trend of climate change from the natural variability of day-to-day weather. Some summers are hot, some cool. Some winters brutal, some mild. That"s natural variability.
But as the climate warms, natural variability is altered, too. In a normal climate without global warming, two sides of the dice would represent cooler-than-normal weather, two sides would be normal weather, and two sides would be warmer-than-normal weather. Rolling the dice season after season, you would get an equal variation of weather over time.
But loading the dice with a warming climate changes the odds. You end up with only one side cooler than normal, one side average, and four sides warmer than normal.
Our new peer-reviewed study, published by the National Academy of Sciences, makes clear that while average global temperature has been steadily rising due to a warming climate, the extremes are actually becoming much more frequent and more intense worldwide.
When we plotted the world"s changing temperatures on a bell curve, the extremes of unusually cool and, even more, the extremes of unusually hot are being altered so they are becoming both more common and more severe.
The change is so dramatic, one face of the dice must represent extreme weather to illustrate the greater frequency of extremely hot events.
Such events used to be exceedingly rare. Extremely hot temperatures covered about 0.1 per cent to 0.2 per cent of the globe in the base period of our study, from 1951 to 1980. In the past three decades, while the average temperature has slowly risen, the extremes have soared and now cover about 10 per cent of the globe.
This is the world we have changed, and we have to live in it - the world that caused the 2003 heatwave in Europe that killed more than 50,000 people and the 2011 drought in Texas that caused more than $5 billion in damage. Such events, our data shows, will become even more frequent and more severe.
There is still time to act and avoid a worsening climate but we are wasting precious time. We can solve the challenge of climate change with a gradually rising fee on carbon collected from fossil-fuel companies, with 100 per cent of the money rebated to all legal residents on a per capita basis. This would stimulate innovations and create a robust clean-energy economy with millions of new jobs. It is a simple, honest and effective solution.
The future is now. And it is hot.
* James Hansen directs the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies.
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