Air pollution: a leading cause of global deaths in 2021, report reveals

Over 700,000 deaths of children under 5 in 2021 alone: ​​these are the devastating effects of air pollution on the little ones who are also the most vulnerable

A new report from the Health Effects Institute (HEI) reveals that air pollution caused 8.1 million deaths globally in 2021, making it the second leading risk factor for death, surpassed only by malnutrition.

Impact on children under five

The report, known as the State of Global Air (SoGA), highlights the growing impact of pollution on human health, with severe repercussions especially for children under five years old. In 2021, over 700,000 deaths of children under five were linked to air pollution exposure, with 500,000 attributed to indoor pollution from cooking with dirty fuels, particularly in Africa and Asia.

Following malnutrition, smog is the second leading cause of death for children under five. On average, nearly 2,000 children die daily due to exposure to polluted air, especially in Africa.

Vulnerability of children to pollution

Produced for the first time in collaboration with UNICEF, the SoGA report emphasizes that children are particularly vulnerable to pollution. The health effects include premature birth, low birth weight, asthma, and lung diseases. Exposure to air pollution in young children is also linked to pneumonia, responsible for the death of one in five children globally, and asthma, the most common chronic respiratory disease in children.

The need for concrete policies and actions

Fine particulate pollution (PM2.5) is the main culprit, responsible for 7.8 million global deaths. These tiny particles, measuring less than 2.5 micrometers in diameter, can penetrate the lungs and bloodstream, increasing the risk of non-communicable diseases in adults, such as heart disease, stroke, diabetes, lung cancer, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). Ozone (O3) and nitrogen dioxide (NO2) also significantly contribute to health issues related to air pollution.

This year’s report introduces data on NO2 exposure and its health effects for the first time, focusing on the impact on childhood asthma development. Densely populated urban areas in high-income countries have the highest levels of NO2 exposure.

Positive trends amidst alarming statistics

Despite these concerning statistics, there is good news. Since 2000, the mortality rate for children under five has decreased by 53%, thanks to efforts to improve access to clean energy, healthcare, nutrition, and awareness of the dangers of household pollution. Additionally, many regions are taking significant steps to improve air quality, such as installing pollution monitoring networks and adopting stricter policies.

Source: Health Effects Institute

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