Over 90 Percent of the World’s Children Are Breathing Toxic Air

The World Health Organization has issued an update to its air quality reports, estimating that 1.8 billion children around the globe are breathing air pollution that exceeds recommended safety levels.

The report, which was released to coincide with the WHO’s first ever Global Conference on Air Pollution and Health, looks at the last available global data to get a glimpse of the harms of air pollution. One of the most startling facts in this study is that it estimates 600,000 children died in 2016 as a result of respiratory infections that were a direct result of exposure to toxic air.

But the effects do not stop there. Around the world, 93 percent of the globe’s children aged 15 years or below are exposed to what is known as ambient fine particulate matter, tiny pollutants floating in the air around us, at concentrations that exceed safety limits. That includes 630 million of children under the age of five.

As is the case in many other areas of environmental concern, poorer and middle income nations are more seriously impacted. Ninety eight percent of all children under five in these nations are breathing unsafe levels of particulate matter. Compare that to just over 50 percent in high-income countries, the latter of which is still a concerning figure.

To look more broadly, 91 percent of people around the world live in areas that don’t meet the WHO’s air quality safety standards. The effects are not abstract, either.

Air Pollution and Health

“Air Pollution is stunting our children’s brains, affecting their health in more ways than we suspected. But there are many straight-forward ways to reduce emissions of dangerous pollutants,” says Dr Maria Neira, WHO’s Director of the Department of Public Health, Environmental and Social Determinants of Health. “WHO is supporting implementation of health-wise policy measures like accelerating the switch to clean cooking and heating fuels and technologies, promoting the use of cleaner transport, energy-efficient housing and urban planning. We are preparing the ground for low emission power generation, cleaner, safer industrial technologies and better municipal waste management.”

This data corroborates a separate report, released in April of this year by the Health Effects Institute, which found that 95 percent of the global population is breathing unsafe air.

There is a raft of science to suggest that air pollution is directly harming us, and often it is poorer people and people from minorities who suffer the devastating effects.

Large scale studies have demonstrated that there is a correlation between poor air quality and lower IQ levels and that higher levels of nitrogen oxide—a particularly pernicious component of air pollution—can drive psychiatric disorders in children. Exposure to air pollution also ups things like diabetes risk and, potentially, autism rates.

The World Health Organization says that global leaders must act on this problem.

Part of that action should come from the health sector, which should be properly funded to give policymakers accurate information on air pollution. From there, policymakers need to create policies that drive down air pollution in highly residential and rural areas.

Air Pollution Isn’t Just an Urban Issue

Rural areas are often forgotten about, because there’s a perception that without heavy traffic, these areas are not at risk. However, rural areas tend to be poorer and the infrastructure less well connected. As a result, people in places like rural India often have to resort to burning their household waste as well as burning biomass for fuel.

This ups their exposure to pollution dramatically. A study from early this year found that 75 percent of India’s high pollution-related deaths actually occur in rural areas. Policymaking has to consider this. We also need to give more attention given to ways in which small but significant changes can impact air quality, such as creating air quality corridors, to ensure meaningful change in the short term as well as longer term strategies.

It’s Time for Real Action on Air Pollution

“The moral and practical case for urgent, bold and far-reaching action to reduce emissions, including calling an end to the fossil fuel era, is now utterly irrefutable,” Mark Watts, executive director of C40 Cities, a global group of city leaders committed to fighting climate change, told the Guardian. “Citizens are demanding action to protect their children, mayors of the world’s big cities are regulating to take dirty vehicles off the streets and slash emissions from buildings and waste. Now is the moment for governments, car manufacturers and other big polluters to step up.”

All this makes it especially curious that the Trump White House is still claiming that the science on pollution impacting our health isn’t settled and allowing more air pollution. This is a lone voice amid a consensus of health experts saying that, while debate over precise thresholds may still be warranted, the upshot is clear: air pollution is killing us and our children, and it is shortening lifespans and driving up rates of heart disease and breathing problems.

It is past time to act.

Photo credit: Getty Images.


Mely L
Mely Lu3 months ago

Thanks for sharing

Lorraine A
Lorraine Andersen4 months ago

Thanks for sharing.

Shae L
Shae Lee4 months ago

Thanks for sharing

Chad Anderson
Chad Anderson4 months ago

Thank you.

Chad A
Chad Anderson4 months ago

Thank you.

Jetana A
Jetana A4 months ago

This is a terrible thing that will affect the future of the human race.

Amparo Fabiana C
Amparo Fabiana C4 months ago

Every year more children are born and or develop respiratory illness.

Janet B
Janet B4 months ago


Shirley S
Shirley S4 months ago

Because my sense of smell is very sensitive I for one have always been susceptible to pollution.

Alea C
Alea C4 months ago

This isn't limited to children, we're all breathing the same toxic air, and according to the experts we only have 12 years left to address climate change or we're doomed.