More than 90 babies die every week in Europe and Central Asia from causes associated with air pollution

UNICEF urges governments to adopt Air Quality Standards in line with the WHO Air Quality Guidelines, as air pollution is now a prominent cause of death among children across the region

06 September 2023
pollution
UNICEF/UN0476385/Pancic

GENEVA, 5 September 2023 – More than 5,800 children and teenagers in Europe and Central Asia died in 2019 from causes related to air pollution. The vast majority – 85 per cent – died before their first birthday, the equivalent of 90 babies a week, according to a new data analysis featured in a policy brief published today by UNICEF.

“When it comes to air pollution, the tiniest lungs carry the heaviest burden, wreaking havoc on children’s health and development, sometimes costing them their lives,” said Regina de Dominicis, UNICEF Regional Director for Europe and Central Asia.

“Reducing air pollutants and children’s exposure to toxic air is critical to protecting their health and their societies, leading to reduced health care costs, improved learning, increased productivity and a safer, cleaner environment for all.”

“Reducing air pollutants and children’s exposure to toxic air is critical to protecting their health and their societies, leading to reduced health care costs, improved learning, increased productivity and a safer, cleaner environment for all.”

Breathless beginnings: the alarming impact of air pollution on children in Europe and Central Asia notes that children exposed to air pollution are at an increased risk of severe health problems including acute respiratory infections such as pneumonia, particularly dangerous for babies and young children.

Breathing polluted air causes long lasting damage to children’s lungs, leading to an increased risk of asthma and chronic respiratory and cardiovascular illnesses and diseases including cancer. Air pollution can lead to neurological disorders later in life as a result of early damage to children’s brains, notes the policy brief.

Children are physically more exposed to air pollution than adults because they breathe twice as fast and often by mouth, taking in more pollutants. They are often closer to the ground where pollutants are accumulated. Children are physiologically more vulnerable to air pollution than adults because their brains, lungs and other organs are exposed to inflammation and damage during a period of rapid development, the brief notes.

In Europe and Central Asia, air pollution – PM 2.5 and PM 10 – is mostly caused by residential and commercial practices including the use of coal and other fossil fuels for heating and cooking.

To prevent worsening air quality, UNICEF urges governments to strengthen policies and investments to expedite the transition to clean, efficient energy and transport across all sectors. This includes supporting energy efficiency and access to clean energy, training primary health care professionals to screen children and detect air pollution-related illnesses, and scaling up and expediting plans to reduce air pollution at national and municipal levels.

To protect children from exposure, UNICEF calls on governments to set up and maintain air quality monitoring systems nearby kindergartens and schools, and report information to the public, noting levels of air pollution that are dangerous to children and pregnant women.

UNICEF works in countries across Europe and Central Asia to gather evidence on the prevalence and impact of air pollution, and helps develop and implement solutions to protect children from further exposure.

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Notes to editors

The regional estimates are based on a new analysis of data from the Global Burden of Disease 2019. New global data will be released by UNICEF later this year.

UNICEF welcomes the proposal by the European Commission to introduce new ambitious air quality standards and calls for the Members of the European Parliament to adopt the text with standards that are in full alignment with the WHO Air Quality Guidelines by 2030.

Media contacts

Cătălin Pruteanu
Media Officer
UNICEF Romania
Tel: +40 726 107 799

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