17 Million Babies Under The Age Of 1 Breathe Toxic Air, Majority Live In South Asia

UNICEF urges immediate action to reduce air pollution amid emerging evidence on how toxic air can affect brain development in young children

20 July 2018
Air pollution

NEW YORK, 6 December 2017 – Almost 17 million babies under the age of one live in areas where air pollution is at least six times higher than international limits, causing them to breathe toxic air and potentially putting their brain development at risk, according to a new UNICEF paper released today. More than three-quarters of these young children – 12 million – live in South Asia.

Danger in the Air: How air pollution can affect brain development in young children notes that breathing in particulate air pollution can damage brain tissue and undermine cognitive development – with lifelong implications and setbacks. 

“Not only do pollutants harm babies’ developing lungs – they can permanently damage their developing brains – and, thus, their futures,” said UNICEF Executive Director Anthony Lake.  “Protecting children from air pollution not only benefits children. It is also benefits their societies – realized in reduced health care costs, increased productivity and a safer, cleaner environment for everyone.” 

Satellite imagery reveals that South Asia has the largest proportion of babies living in the worst-affected areas, with 12.2 million babies residing where outdoor air pollution exceeds six times international limits set by the World Health Organization. The East Asia and Pacific region is home to some 4.3 million babies living in areas that exceed six times the limit. 

The paper shows that air pollution, like inadequate nutrition and stimulation, and exposure to violence during the critical first 1,000 days of life, can impact children’s early childhood development by affecting their growing brains:

  • Ultrafine pollution particles are so small that they can enter the blood stream, travel to the brain, and damage the blood-brain barrier, which can cause neuro-inflammation.
  • Some pollution particles, such as ultrafine magnetite, can enter the body through the olfactory nerve and the gut, and, due to their magnetic charge, create oxidative stress – which is known to cause neurodegenerative diseases.
  • Other types of pollution particles, such as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, can damage areas in the brain that are critical in helping neurons communicate, the foundation for children’s learning and development.
  • A young child’s brain is especially vulnerable because it can be damaged by a smaller dosage of toxic chemicals, compared to an adult’s brain. Children are also highly vulnerable to air pollution because they breathe more rapidly and also because their physical defences and immunities are not fully developed.

The paper outlines urgent steps to reduce the impact of air pollution on babies’ growing brains, including immediate steps parents can take to reduce children’s exposure in the home to harmful fumes produced by tobacco products, cook stoves and heating fires:

  •  Reduce air pollution by investing in cleaner, renewable sources of energy to replace fossil fuel combustion; provide affordable access to public transport; increase green spaces in urban areas; and provide better waste management options to prevent open burning of harmful chemicals. 
  •  Reduce children’s exposure to pollutants by making it feasible for children to travel during times of the day when air pollution is lower; provide appropriately fitting air filtration masks in extreme cases; and create smart urban planning so that major sources of pollution are not located near schools, clinics or hospitals. 
  • Improve children’s overall health to improve their resilience. This includes the prevention and treatment of pneumonia, as well as the promotion of exclusive breastfeeding and good nutrition. 
  • Improve knowledge and monitoring of air pollution. Reducing children’s exposure to pollutants and the sources of air pollution begins with understanding the quality of air they are breathing in the first place.  

“No child should have to breathe dangerously polluted air – and no society can afford to ignore air pollution,” said Lake.

For additional information, read the paper here.


Kathmandu 5 December: The issue of air quality has been a major concern in Nepal, too. According to the 2016 Environment Performance Index (EPI) of Yale University nearly 75 percent of the population in Nepal are exposed to unsafe levels of particulate matter.  

Air pollution in the capital Kathmandu and Terai area is particularly worrying.  In the case of Kathmandu, major sources of air pollution are brick kilns, fume-spewing vehicles (vehicle registration in Bagmati Zone, which includes Kathmandu Valley, doubled in the past fiscal year according to the Department of Transport Management), street dust and burning of waste at home.  These factors coupled with the Valley’s bowl-like topography which traps heavy polluted air, means that for most days of the year, except for the rainy seasons, the air quality of Kathmandu Valley hits dangerous level – up to five times worse than the upper limit of the National Ambient Air Quality Standards guidelines according to Nepal Health Research Council (NHRC) 

Like many other things, children are most vulnerable to the negative health effects of air pollution.  Urgent steps need to be taken to ensure that children’s rights to clean air by establishing and strictly implementing required regulatory framework to control air pollution and concrete measures to reduce the emission of pollutants.


Notes to Editors

To download a video to accompany this story, visit here.

The analysis is based on global satellite imagery of air pollution (PM2.5) as well as demographic data to estimate the number of children under the age of 1 who live in areas where outdoor air pollution exceeds limits set by the World Health Organization. The number of children living in areas where outdoor air pollution exceeds six times the limits are among the worst affected.

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