Unicef Executive Director Henrietta Fore has sought immediate action in South Asia to clean the air for children saying around 620 million children in the region breathe polluted, toxic air.
“I was just in South Asia where I saw firsthand how children continue to suffer from the dire consequences of air pollution. The air quality was at a crisis level,” she said in a statement on toxic air in South Asia on Thursday seeking urgent action to address this air quality crisis.
Fore said governments in the region and around the world should take urgent steps to reduce air pollution by investing in cleaner, renewable sources of energy to replace fossil fuel combustion; provide affordable access to clean public transport; increase green spaces in urban areas; change agricultural practices and provide better waste management options to prevent open burning of harmful chemicals.
“Children have a right to live in a clean environment and breathe clean air. We must act now,” she said.
Fore said anybody could smell the toxic fog even from behind an air filtration mask and from every neighborhood, one could see the pollution obscuring buildings, trees and people.
She said schools and offices closed or curtailed hours. “With winter approaching, the situation is set to become even worse.”
The Unicef Executive Director said children have smaller lungs, breathe twice as fast as adults, and lack the immunities that come with age, children endure its damaging health and neurological effects the most.
“Air pollution is associated with one of the biggest killers of children – pneumonia, and linked to asthma, bronchitis, and other respiratory infections,” she said.
Air pollution damages brain tissue and undermines cognitive development in babies and young children, leading to lifelong consequences that can affect their learning outcomes and future potential.
“There’s evidence to suggest that adolescents exposed to higher levels of air pollution are more likely to experience mental health problems,” Fore said.
She said the toxicity to children’s brain development and health is also toxic to society, which no government can afford to ignore.
Fore said the ripple effects extend far and wide. When children are sick, they frequently miss school. “In extreme cases, when the air is so toxic, schools may close, as we have seen in Delhi just this week.”
The Unicef Executive Director said pollution levels were literally above the range that sensors could measure, many times above what can reasonably be considered safe for children and clearly presenting grave risks to their health and development.
She said health expenses may increase if children need care and treatment. Parents may need to stay home as well in order to care for their children.
Fore said potential income is lost, and quality of life is reduced. “The effects of air pollution on children can be felt well into adulthood.”